Sticking to His Afghan Guns

The big story here over the weekend in the Netherlands, for once, is one with ripples that extend out to touch many other countries. It’s namely the fall of our coalition government, called “Balkenende IV,” but more precisely it’s the reason the government fell, which was simple: one part of it (CDA, CU – both of those C’s stand for “Christian,” by the way) wanted to waffle on the plans to withdraw Dutch troops from Afghanistan by next August; the other part (PvdA) insisted that there be no waffling. Result: there will be no waffling, because the plans are going through, the troops will be back home by the end of the summer, and as an added bonus it looks like there will be (premature) national elections in May to determine a new parliament (Tweede Kamer) and a new government.

One way you can tell this is truly a “big story” (if ipso facto is not itself sufficient for your reasoning process) is that the weekend is not even over, yet reports of repercussions are already coming in. Here’s a piece from Trouw reporting how the governor of Uruzgan (the province in southern Afghanistan where most of the Dutch combat troops are), Asadullah Hamdam, is already getting worried and has called upon the Dutch government to change its mind. On the other hand, Afghan General Juma Gul Himat, chief of police there, says he’s willing to live with a Dutch withdrawal – for a price. He wants better training, better air support, faster economic development, and better equipment: mine-detectors, helicopters. (Ah, mon cher général – what part of “We’re outta here!” don’t you understand?)

The second half of the Trouw article deals with the issue – also covered here in the Algemeen Dagblad – of whether the Australian troops there in Afghanistan could maybe take over for the departing Dutch. Short answer: they can’t, or at least they won’t. That much the Australian foreign minister, Stephen Smith, has made clear. The Aussies do have around 1,550 troops there in Uruzgan also, with no date fixed for them to leave (although the AD article does mention that that country’s minister of defense, John Faulkner, has already expressed the wish that they be out of there soon), but they’ve got their hands full now with the reconstruction and training activities they’ve already been assigned, thank you very much indeed, mate.

But what also caught my eye was this brief piece by Tobias Müller in the the Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung over Wouter Bos, leader of the PvdA party which broke the present coalition government by, in effect, walking out of it. (All PvdA cabinet members resigned their positions.) The title of Müller’s piece translates (roughly) as “Explosive-meister of the coalition,” a reference to the blame being ascribed to Bos and his PvdA for blowing it up. But, as he astutely notes, that is mostly what Bos’ political opponents – most prominently, the politicians of the CDA and CU – want everyone to believe. An alternate view, which probably is gaining more currency, is that of Bos being the only one around willing to stick to his principles in demanding that the promised and planned end to Dutch involvement in Afghanistan go through – “showing backbone at any price,” as Müller phrases it in his article’s lede. As the author notes, Bos has done so many a time before, although usually in connection with selling something to the members of his leftist Labor Party that they didn’t really want to go for, e.g. abandoning the demand for a national referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, raising the retirement age, weakening workers’ protection against being laid off. Granted, those last two are still just proposals for discussion – but at least they are open for discussion.

The point is that it is this reputation for being a principled politician, not just out to be in the government at any price, which could well stand Wouter Bos in good stead in the campaigning-season about to open for May’s general election. (For what it’s worth – the PvdA and Wouter Bos are hardly the personal electoral preferences of this blogger.)

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