Last week, the final decision has been made by the Dutch government: The Netherlands will send a batallion of at least 350 militaries to Mali, consisting of commandos, information analysts, trainers and four Apache attack helicopters.
Their tasks will be to gather intelligence about extremist insurgents in the north of the country, who are linked to Al Qaeda, and to train Malinese police agents in their battle against the domestic violence in Mali.
Mali, a very large and extremely poor African country, has been torn apart after a period of political instability that started in 2006, in spite of the fact that Mali had been a model democracy since the Nineties. Tuareg rebels and splinter groups of religious extremists conquered large parts of the northern territory, where they planned to establish a so-called sharia state. From there, these insurgents started to attack the southern parts of the country, using both their superior weaponry and the battle experience that the Tuaregs gathered in Libya in 2011.
Dissatisfied Malinese militaries, who felt seriously ‘undergunned’ to the insurgents, performed a coup d’etat against President Touré in March, 2012. This coup d’etat led to further instability in the months after and the insurgents managed to conquer the cities Gao, Gidal and Timbouctou. On 6 April 2012, the rebels declared the ‘Independent Republic of Azawad’ in the north of Mali, followed-up by the Islamic Republic of Azawad on May 26, 2012.
In January 2013, when the rebels had conquered the central city of Konna at only 600 kilometers from capital Bamako, the Malinese government asked the French army for help. This French army started air attacks against the rebels on 11 January 2013 and sent more troups to capital Bamako, in order to prevent Mali from becoming a stronghold for terroristic movements. The French troups are still in Mali until now.
Before the end of 2013, the Dutch army is going to accompany the French, under the flag of UN operation ‘Minusma’. This operation is led by former Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation, Bert Koenders, who urged the Dutch government to send troups.
During the last two UN missions, the Dutch government refused to send Dutch troups. Afghanistan and previous UN / NATO missions, as well as the unstoppable flow of austerity operations and cutbacks among the Dutch military force, had exhausted the Dutch army. Too few available soldiers and equipment and structurally lacking funds in the Dutch military made it too hard to fight in the aforementioned UN missions.
However, when the call came from Bert Koenders to fight in Mali, the Dutch government felt it couldn’t refuse once more, if it wanted to be taken seriously in the world.
One thing that might have influenced the decision of Cabinet Mark Rutte II to enter this Malinese mission, is the fact that the Security Council will have a vacant seat in 2017; the Dutch government would adore to have this temporary seat. The Rutte Cabinet might have felt, that refusing another military mission would diminish its chances for this Security Council seat to nil.
However, PM Mark Rutte categorically denied that his decision to send the troops to Mali has been influenced by this:
According to PM Rutte, the cabinet decided to enter in this mission, because The Netherlands can deliver a useful contribution to the battle against terrorism in the backyard of Europe. ‘We do this because we can contribute, not for an ego here or a nomination there and not even for our status in the world’.
By itself I can defend the decision to start a military mission in Mali. Large parts of the North-West of Africa are starting to become the battle ground for religious extremists, with numerous people dead and wounded as a terrible result: Nigeria, Mali and Algeria all had their share of outrageous, religious violence during the last few years. Besides that, there is a considerable chance that this violence will further spread over the continent when nothing happens.
However, a military mission in Mali is not ‘a walk in the park’ and should absolutely not be entered lightly! This was proven once more this weekend: two kidnapped French journalists, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Vernon, were found shot to dead, only hours after they were abducted by a few armed rebels.
This is the reason that I really, really hope that PM Mark Rutte has spoken the truth in the aforementioned quote, when he said that the seat in the security council had nothing to do with his decision to enter the Malinese mission. Unfortunately, I have my doubts about that.
Of course, the status and prestige of a country is very important; not only from a political point of view, but also from an economic one. Deciding to enter the mission can therefore be a sign of good political jugdment by PM Rute. BUT… the broad austerity measures and ruthless cutbacks among the military in The Netherlands have considerably weakened the Dutch army. And the final decision of Cabinet Rutte to buy the Joint Strike Fighter as the official successor of the F16 fighter plane, means that the budget for the other parts of the Dutch military will remain extremely low in years to come.
Even when 350+ extremely well-trained commandos and special troups will enter the civil war in Mali, they will still be vastly outnumbered by the Islamic and Touareg insurgents. And the Dutch troups will have to stand on their own two feet in Mali, as the French army probably won’t have the manpower to protect the Dutch, when a hostile majority of insurgents is hunting them down.
The worst thing that could happen to The Netherlands and to the Dutch commandos in particular– and this is unfortunately a very realistic scenario –, is that a few Dutch soldiers will be kidnapped by Al Qaeda-related insurgents in the North of Mali, and will be brutally murdered in one of those disgusting, heart-breaking videos.
This would be a devastating blow to the Dutch military, the government and the people, especially for anybody who is remotely related to the Dutch army. This would also be a terrible scenario for me in particular and you must believe me when I state that it is the last thing that I want on earth.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of scenario that you have to reckon with as an army, against adversaries who don’t fight ‘according to the Geneva convention’, but play for keeps.
Except for wholeheartedly hoping that such a scenario will never play out, I truly hope that PM Rutte didn’t take the decision to send troups to Mali lightly. And I especially hope that he didn’t violate the truth, last Friday, when he stated that he didn’t have a political goal in mind when he and his cabinet took this decision.