The Netherlands Reconsiders

A young Italian soldier on guard duty in the night, standing before the pile of rubble that used to be the headquarters of the carabinieri in Nasariya, Iraq, before the suicide truck-bombing early Wednesday that killed eighteen of his comrades, despairingly grips his head. That picture dominated the front pages of most Italian newspapers yesterday (at least according to the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad). The Dutch have soldiers on duty in southern Iraq too, not very far at all from where the Italians were stationed and operating under the same British command. It’s understandable that they are starting to think again about what they have let themselves get into.

The lower house of the Dutch parliament (the Tweede Kamer) certainly is, as we will see. And as for newspapers, at least the NRC is also pondering the question. So far things still seem safe for the Dutch soldiers there, it reports in an article entitled Bullet-Proof Vest and Helmet Back On. (But it’s actually unlikely that those vests are bullet-proof, or even the helmets for that matter; I deal with this question, in the context of my own experiences in the American army, in this article.)


Yes, the Dutch sector in the lightly-populated Al-Muthanna province, bordering Saudi Arabia to the south, is even more peaceful than the neighboring British sector that encompasses Iraq’s second city, Basra. The British have taken casualties there; no Dutch soldier has even been wounded. The only incidents so far have been once when Dutch marines on patrol last August near the provincial capital, As-Samawah, came upon armed looters plundering a cement factory (resulting in some shooting, naturally, but no casualties), and when one of the pilots of a Dutch Chinook transport helicopter, flying at night, reported seeing tracer rounds flying up into the air. But they weren’t aimed particularly accurately; and frankly, those sorts of fireworks generally figure in the usual way Iraqis celebrate things like weddings.

This is not to say, of course, that things couldn’t “heat up” for the Dutch soldiers, even as the November Arabian desert cools down. The leaked CIA report of earlier this week says as much; that’s the one, you’ll recall, warning that the Iraqi-in-the-street is starting to lose confidence in the Coalition authority, and that a spread of guerrilla violence to the north and south from its present locus in Baghdad and the “Sunni triangle” could result. But the Dutch soldiers are in good shape at their bases, which the NRC reports are outside of built-up areas, with surrounding earthen walls, barbed wire, guards, long-range observation on all sides, and even anti-vehicle obstacles (i.e. anti-trucks loaded with explosives and a driver seeking closer communion with Allah) that the NRC calls a sluis – yes, “sluice.” That’s a very, very Dutch word – not very far behind tulp, “tulip,” or klomp, “wooden shoe” – but it still leaves me wondering exactly what writer Stevern Derix has in mind in the context of the desert.

Of course, the mission of the c. 1,100 Dutch soldiers in Iraq is not to stay hidden within their basis, but rather to patrol to bring a measure of security to the territory they have been assigned, and that’s where potential future casualties lie in wait. One unique problem for them is precisely that that territory lies on the Saudi border. Especially now that the desert has cooled down, it’s very reasonable to think that people are trying to cross that border that the Dutch, and Coalition authorities in general, would like to know about. But the Dutch don’t have the resources to monitor the border – they have to rely on British and American intelligence information. That intelligence is “rather sparse, or is simply not passed on,” as a couple of visiting members of the Tweede Kamer heard themselves from the contingent commander, Colonel Dick Swijgman, not long ago. And that is what is really disturbing, since the Dutch are after all contributing troops down here, to patrol and to possibly be injured or killed, as well; you would hope, or even assume, that they would routinely get the intelligence information they need.

As it happens, the Tweede Kamer has now asked Premier Balkenende to have his cabinet review the Dutch mission in Iraq, the NRC reports in this accompanying article. But, just like Italy, the Netherlands government has no intention at this time of pulling out. That’s what Defense Minister Henk Kamp made clear yesterday, although his ministry is also conducting its own analysis of the attack on the carabinieri, which it will share with the Tweede Kamer when completed.


But now the best part: the NRC’s commentary, Heksenketel Irak. (Heksenketel = “witches’ cauldron,” but in common Dutch is rather used for a chaotic situation you’d rather not find yourself in.) Things can’t go on this way, the NRC declares right from the start: “this is muddling-through [doormodderen] of the worst sort. . . . The Americans – and not only they – at this moment have lost their grip on the situation.” Other options must be found – and at least we know that President Bush will find them, and choose one, since he knows too well that all this is putting his re-election in 2004 in grave danger.

Consider these, the NRC offers: 1) Pull out. No good – not only would it be a huge setback in the fight against terrorism, but it also would be an admission of failure that Bush junior doesn’t want to make, not after the way Bush senior let down the Iraqis in revolt against Saddam Hussein’s government after the Gulf War. 2) Send more troops. The NRC here cites James Dobbins, author of the recent study America’s Role in Nation Building: from Germany to Iraq, who recommends a troop-strength in Iraq of anywhere from 350,000 to 525,000. (This Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, complete with chart, lists US troop strength in Iraq in October at 130,000.) This means many more casualties, much more money, but this choice at least offers the prospect of success. 3) Truly internationalize the Iraqi occupation. The NRC doesn’t explain this option at much length, and that’s too bad; here it boils down to “sharing power” and granting the Iraqis faster bestuursverantwoordelijkheid – that’s “responsibility for governing.” The paper also adds that maybe some combination of #2 and #3 is possible. I get the impression that that sort of “internationalization” is precisely what the Bush administration decided to do at the latest “emergency consultations” in Washington with Paul Bremer, moving up the timetable for elections so that they even take place before a new Iraqi constitution has been adopted.

And what about the Netherlands? What should that country do? The NRC finds no reason to panic about the situation of the Dutch soldiers now in-country, although it’s clear that the risks that they face have now risen. After all, “why would terrorists spare Dutch marines?” What’s needed is for the responsible officials – specifically, Defense Minister Kamp – to start to come up with an “exit strategy” of what to do “if the Netherlands is unexpectedly left to stand alone there” (i.e. if one-by-one the foreign troop contingents start to cut and run). And there’s the further question about extending the authorization for the Dutch mission in Iraq, since that has to be done every so often by the cabinet; what it needs for that decision, the NRC writes, is timely and accurate information that the Netherlands deserves from American and British sources. (But recall the Dutch being kept in the dark on the Saudi border.)

The final lines: “The Netherlands has contributed both in Iraq and Afghanistan as an ally. Departing with our tail between our legs is not in the cards, but there are limits to what a small country can accomplish in such a heksenketel.”


While we’re at it – namely, in this weblog’s “Benelux” category – let’s take a look at the commentary of the leading newspaper of Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern half, De Standaard. Writer Bart Sturtewagen is not very happy over the latest developments in Iraq either, as you can tell right away by his title: Sucking Morass. “The American government is showing signs of starting to panic,” Sturtewagen writes. The time President Bush has left to restore confidence in his Iraq policy is steadily ticking away.

What was the meaning of that attack that killed eighteen Italian soldiers on Wednesday, he asks? Clearly, to hit the Coalition’s weakest link – the troop contingents contributed by smaller countries. Just as past attacks on the Red Cross and UN have in effect driven these institutions out of the country, for fear of the safety of their personnel, so have the Iraqi insurgent forces set the same chain of events going with that attack. Italy’s Berlusconi may have reacted defiantly, sending fifty more carabinieri to Iraq; but now Japan prefers to “temporarily” hold back its own troop contribution, and Sturtewagen detects further reports of wavering from the Netherlands and Portugal.

Nevertheless, Sturtewagen has an interesting perspective on the prospect of the US just “declaring victory” and pulling out. It won’t, because it simply can’t; American is now too deeply engaged, and that is too important (read: “oil-rich”) a part of the world. For the superpower to be driven out by insurgents (which Sturtewagen counts at “a couple hundred, at most a couple thousand bombers and their hangers-on”) would be simply ridiculous, a greater defeat than Vietnam. It simply has to stay and take its punishment.

“If there is a positive side to this debacle,” he writes, it is that it will be a long time before the United States plunges into such an adventure without international support.” (He actually uses for that last word rugdekking – “covering of one’s back”). But looking on with a mischievous grin as the Americans get their just desserts is one thing; coming up with a feasible alternative for maintaining international peace and security is quite another.

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