Global Investigative Journalism Conference,
Panel: Iraq - How Did We Get There?
September 29 - October 02, 2005 Amsterdam

The secret military support of the Dutch government to Bush’s war in Iraq

Huub Jaspers


Before I start, I would like to say that I am a reporter and editor of the investigative radio programme Argos, broadcasted by VPRO every Friday on the national news station ‘Radio 1’. Argos is a team of eight people and we really work as a team. So, all of my colleagues, in one way or another, had part in the series of programmes that we broadcasted about the support of the Dutch government to the war in Iraq. But I have to mention two colleagues by name, who were deeply involved in these investigations: our German reporter Franz Josef Hutsch and our editor in chief Gerard Legebeke.



A contingent of 1.200 Dutch military, under the mission name SFIR, from July 2003 until April 2005 was deployed in Iraq. SFIR came two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein to Iraq. Not as a part of the American-British occupation authorities, as the Dutch government emphasized, but as a Stabilization Force - in the relatively peaceful southern province Al Muthanna. Two Dutch military were killed during this SFIR mission and several Iraqi’s were killed by Dutch troops, at checkpoints or during patrols.


‘Even a big part of government does not know about secret missions’

Months before the SFIR mission Dutch military were already involved in the war against Saddam; military of the Royal Dutch Army, Air Force and Navy – on a small scale and under the highest secrecy. Argos, broadcasted several stories about this secret military support of the Dutch government to Bush’s war in Iraq. Our investigations created anxiety in parliament not only within the opposition parties but also within the government coalition. Until the fall of Baghdad the Dutch government claimed that the Netherlands ‘politically but not militarily’ supported the war against Saddam. In the Argos programme broadcasted on May 14, 2004, the spokesman of the Social Democratic party in parliament Bert Koenders commented our investigations. He said: "If your findings are correct the government will have a big problem." His colleague Bert Bakker, spokesman of the liberal democratic D66, one of the three government parties, added: "It’s not only parliament, it’s also a big part of the government it self which often doesn’t know anything about these things."


Clandestine F16 flights above Iraq

Our investigations started in autumn 2002 when we received information from several sources who wanted to be kept strictly anonymous. In some cases, we already knew our sources and from the beginning we were convinced that their information was correct. In some cases we did not know the informants and were sceptical. We started to check – the information as well as the informants.

The first tip that we got from a person who we did not know before was that Dutch F16’s, which were deployed in Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan for Operation Enduring Freedom, flew reconnaissance missions above Iraq to provide the US military with information. First we could not believe this, but our informant was tenacious and gave us interesting details. For instance about a forced landing. On the Internet we found a website of a Dutch military who was involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. On the site there was a special page about a forced landing. The details we found there were corresponding with the story that our informant told us. A passage on the site said that some details were removed. That, of course, made us curious. We found out the phone number of the owner of the site and called him. He explained to us that the Ministry of Defence had ordered him to remove some details from his site. When we started asking about the reasons, the military began to hesitate. When we mentioned the preparations of the war against Iraq, the conversation abrupt came to an end. We then called the Ministry of Defence and asked why some details from the website had to be removed. We did not get a satisfying answer. When we asked the Ministry whether Dutch F16´s or pilots had carried out reconnaissance flights above Iraq, the Ministry denied. But the Ministry could not convince us that this was true. So we continued our investigations. We succeeded to find the name and the phone number of one of the involved F16 pilots. When we called him and asked about Iraq, he got furious. "It’s good that I know your name", he shouted. "The intelligence services are already working on this." Then the line was disconnected.


After the Argos programme, a few MoP’s were informed secretly

We broadcasted this story, together with our findings about the involvement of Dutch Special Forces and a Dutch submarine in the preparations of the war against Iraq, on March 28, 2003. Immediately after our programme questions in parliament were raised. The answers of the government were sent to parliament only five days after our programme. In this public answer to parliament the government denied everything. Months later we found out that at the same time the Minister of Defence did inform the three individual members of the parliamentary Commission on the Intelligence Services about some secret around the Dutch F16’s in Kyrgyzstan. The Minister, after our programme, personally called these three members. At that moment this was the most secret way of informing parliament which was possible for the Minister. It also indicates that after our programme this matter in the eyes of the government was very urgent. I cannot reveal how I know this. I only can tell you that I have more then one serious source for this information. And I can give you the names of the three MoP’s who confidentially were informed by the Minister: Maxime Verhagen, the parliamentary party leader of the Christian Democrats, Jozias van Aartsen, the parliamentary party leader of the Liberals and Wouter Bos, the leader of the Social Democrats.


‘A slip of the tongue’

I mentioned already that the F16 missions were not the only military contribution that the Dutch government did provide to the preparations of the war against Saddam. A Dutch Walrus submarine for instance, was involved in an intelligence operation in the Gulf in the autumn of 2002. Argos as well as other journalists received information about this operation. In the first instance, Secretary of State Cees van der Knaap in front of a camera of the RTL TV News openly confirmed that the Walrus mission was part of the preparations of the war against Saddam. But later on the Ministry of Defence called this ‘a slip of the tongue’ and denied what the Secretary had been explaining. The Secretary spoke to RTL News on November 21, 2002. The day before Prime Minister Balkenende, after a meeting with President Bush on the eve of the NATO top in Prague, publicly had indicated that the Dutch government was considering supporting a military attack against Iraq. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who today is Secretary General of NATO but at that time was the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave similar public statements.


A typical Dutch compromise

In the days and weeks that followed on the Prague meeting, it became clear that this readiness within the Dutch government to join the coalition of the willing was creating political difficulties.

First of all, it became more and more clear that two of the three leading EU countries, Germany and France, would not support the war and Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac even started openly resisting. Traditionally the Netherlands, which sees it self as ‘the biggest of the small’ NATO countries, is not only one of the most loyal allies of the US, but also one of the pioneers of the European integration. So the looming split in the EU became a major problem in the eyes of the Dutch political elite.

Secondly, it was very doubtful whether the majority of the people in the Netherlands would be happy with Dutch participation in the war. On January 22, 2003, the general elections for parliament were planned. So this was a problem as well, especially for the Christian Democrats, the party of Balkenende and De Hoop Scheffer.

Thirdly it was suspected that the Social Democrats under Wouter Bos would have a big come back with the elections in January 2003 and that the party of Balkenende and De Hoop Scheffer would be forced to form a new government together with the party of Wouter Bos. The Social Democrats had made it clear that they did not want to support the war of Bush against Saddam. A typical Dutch compromise that the Christian Democrats after the elections in the tough negotiations with the Social Democrats offered was that the Netherlands would support the war of Bush and Blair ‘politically but not militarily’.

A leading British Defence expert, Julian Lindley French, told me that in those days a joke was going around in the international defence community: ‘the Dutch are waiting to form a new government until the war is over. So they do not have to decide whether they join or not.’ It never became undoubtedly clear whether Wouter Bos and his comrades accepted the compromise formula of the Christian Democrats. But it became clear that the negotiations between the two parties failed and that the Christian Democrats succeeded to form a new government together with the conservative Liberals of the VVD and the progressive Liberals of D66. This new Dutch government kept the formula ‘political but no military support’ – until the fall of Baghdad and Tikrit, the last bulwark of Saddam, in April 2003. The new Dutch government, that started on May 27, 2003, decided to send SFIR, a Stabilization Force of 1.200 Dutch military, to a relatively peaceful southern province in Iraq. The first SFIR military arrived in Iraq in July 2003.


Lieutenant Colonel Jan Blom on stage with General Tommy Franks

Three months before, on March 22, 2003, the attack on Iraq did start two days earlier, a Dutch officer, was at the stage during the first press conference that CENTCOM Commander General Tommy Franks, the commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, gave in Qatar about the operation. In front of television cameras from all over the world, lieutenant colonel Jan Blom was introduced by General Franks - besides Air Marshall Bryan Burridge from Great Britain, Brigadier Maurie McNarn of Australia and Rear Admiral Per Tidemand from Denmark. The participation of the Dutch officer led to tumult in Dutch public opinion and in parliament. Why exactly a Dutch officer was asked to be on stage? The British, the Australians and the Danes, who also had an officer on stage, were openly involved in the military operation. And other nations, who did participate with troops as well, were not at stage. ‘This would not have happened if the Dutch were not directly militarily involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom’, a senior intelligence officer off the record explained to me. The Dutch government denied any military participation and claimed that the presence of the Dutch lieutenant colonel just was the result of a misunderstanding.


Secret missions of Dutch Special Forces

The formula ‘political but no military support’ could not undo the military missions that were carried out to support the war of President Bush: A intelligence mission of a Dutch submarine in the Gulf; reconnaissance flights above Iraq by Dutch F16 jet fighters; and last but not least clandestine missions of Dutch Special Forces of the KCT, the Korps Commandotroepen, based in Roosendaal.

Argos received from several sources information about these Special Forces missions. In January a former Special Forces officer told us that Dutch Special Forces were preparing in Oman. From a Western European intelligence officer, we heard a story about a Danish intelligence report which was leaked to other NATO partners. It was a mission report of March 4, 2003, about a long distance reconnaissance operation of Danish Special Forces in Iraq. In the report ‘attached parts NL forces’ were mentioned. According to our source this could indicate that Dutch Special Forces, under Danish command, were involved in long distance reconnaissance operation of Danish Special Forces in Iraq. From several sources, among others a source very close to the British SAS, we received information about Dutch Special Forces being involved in the opening of the second front in the north of Iraq, after the Turkish government had refused its territory for the deployment of coalition troops. The operation was lead by the 720th Special Tactics Group of the 5th American Special Forces Group, our sources told us.

BBC reporter John Simpson in those days was with American troops in northern Iraq and became world news when his convoy in April 2003 was terribly hit by ‘friendly fire’. Simpson got wounded, his translator was killed. Simpson reported in our programme that he heard from American Special Forces that there were British Special Forces around and Special Forces from other countries as well. Afterwards he heard that this included Dutch Special Forces.

Since it is in the nature of Special Forces operations that they are carried out under the highest secrecy, it was clear to us that it would be very hard to get any official confirmation. This of course did not restrain us from asking several governments for a reaction. To the Dutch government, for instance, we asked: Did you receive an official request from the American government to support Operation Iraqi Freedom with Special Forces? The Dutch government refused to answer this question, even to parliament. But the spokes man of the Danish minister of Defence told us that the Dutch government had, just like the Danish, indeed did receive such a request from Washington in November 2002. The Dutch Minister refused to give any comment.


A core group of Ministers can decide – without informing the rest of the cabinet

With regards to Special Forces operations, every sentence and every word in every official statement have to be studied carefully. Let me, to give you a clear example, please say a few sentences about Afghanistan, the other country where a lot of Special Forces operations are carried out since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

When Member of Parliament Marijke Vos on November 4, 2003, asked the Minister of Defence, whether the US has requested the Netherlands to send Special Forces to Afghanistan, the Minister answered: we only did receive an informal American request. Two weeks later, Vos received a letter from the Minister were he admitted that the Dutch government also received an official request from Washington. When we hinted the Director of the Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies, Professor Rob de Wijk, a leading Dutch Defence expert and a former Ministry official, on this letter, he was distinct: "If an informal request is followed by a formal request, this means that the Dutch government must have said ‘Yes’ to the Americans. That’s the way it works."

The Minister stated in his letter: The American request "did not lead to proposal to the Cabinet Council." Marijke Vos thought that this meant that the Dutch government said ‘No’ to the Americans. But when we reminded her at a special procedure with regards to Special Forces operations, accepted by parliament in August 2000, she understood that the letter of Minister very well could mean that the Dutch government said ‘Yes’ to the Americans. Special Forces operations in the Netherlands can be decided by a core group of five Ministers, including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defence. They do not have to be discussed within parliament and also not within the Cabinet Council.

Back to Iraq. On April 2, 2003, the Dutch Minister of Defence reacted with a letter to parliament on our first programme on the Dutch support to the war in Iraq. The Minister wrote: "No Dutch military units have participated in military operations on the territory of Iraq." At first sight it seemed that this was a denial of the Argos findings. But we did not report that complete Dutch units had participated in Iraq. What we reported five days before was that small groups of Dutch Special Forces took part.


‘Don’t ask the Minister about these supposed secret actions!’

In January 2004, this was more then half a year after the Saddam regime was fallen and nearly half a year since the Dutch SFIR mission was established in southern Iraq, Argos had an interview with Minister of Defence Henk Kamp. Before we got to the Minister a high ranking official of the Ministry said to us: "I just wanted to make sure that you will not ask any question about these supposed secret military actions in Iraq that you reported about." Since the interview was about the future Dutch defence policy, we could reassure the official. But our curiosity was stimulated very much by this remark. Why was the Ministry so afraid that the Minister would be asked about this subject? Would it be difficult for him to deny?


‘The Special Forces losses in Afghanistan and Iraq are tremendous’

We started researching the background of the American requests to several allies to send Special Forces to Iraq and Afghanistan? Are the American Special Forces confronted with big losses? It was not easy to find concrete information on this question. The Pentagon told us that they could not provide us with figures. The American Special Forces expert Tim Brown of ‘’ explained to us why the Pentagon tries to keep the numbers of the Special Forces losses classified. Brown said that combat related deaths sometimes even are covered up, for instance as training accidents. "They just say: ‘They were on a training mission and their helicopter crashed.’", Brown stated.

We started an intensive research on the Internet. We found a website called Lunaville with figures of all American military killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exclusively based on releases of the Pentagon or the American armed forces. Besides the name of some of the casualties the special forces background was mentioned. But a lot of Special Forces casualties were not mentioned as Special Forces. So we had to look further. With the name of every victim we started to search. We came to hundreds of websites: local newspapers, local organizations, private sites, veteran organizations, military sites and so on.

A former Special Forces officer was willing to help us after we guaranteed that we would keep his identity secret. Together with him we found out that more then 50% of the killed American military in Afghanistan were Special Forces and nearly 10% of the American casualties in Iraq. That the losses for the American Special Forces must be dramatic became clear when we looked to the wounded. Here, we had neither figures nor lists of names. But from the US military hospital in Landstuhl (Germany) we got the total figures of all American military that were evacuated to this hospital from Afghanistan and Iraq. The total figure until April 20, 2004, the day that we were there, was: more then 2.300 for Afghanistan and more then 11.400 for Iraq. The former Special Forces officer who helped us with the interpretations said that it was allowed to assume that the Special Forces percentage under the wounded would be similar to the percentage under the dead. So, we could calculate that the total losses of US Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq between the autumn of 2001 and spring of 2004 must be more then 2.200. Precisely our calculation came to 114 killed American Special Forces and 2.112 evacuated to the Landstuhl hospital.

We did not succeed to get any official comment on this calculation. But defence expert Professor Rob de Wijk from the Clingendael Institute in The Hague was willing to have a close look at our findings. He called the results of our investigation "a revelation" and explained: "The number of Special Forces, the elite troops of every army, are limited. So, these losses in Afghanistan and Iraq are tremendous. This explains why the US is putting so much pressure on its allies, including The Netherlands, to send Special Forces to Afghanistan or Iraq."


Huub Jaspers is an investigative journalist working for AGROS, a Dutch weekly radioprogramme, broadcosted by VPRO on Radio 1 in the Netherlands.