Dutch troops leave Afghanistan after four years
Dutch troops ended their mission in Afghanistan Sunday after four "proud" years, in a departure experts say signals the beginning of a drawdown of foreign forces that will leave a worrying void.
The pull-out is the first significant drawdown of troops from the Afghan war, now in its ninth year, and comes as Taliban-led violence worsens and US forces suffered their worst month for casualties.
A Dutch embassy official in Kabul said a small "change of command" ceremony and reception was held at the main military base in central Uruzgan province where most of the country's 1,950 soldiers have been deployed.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which had asked the Dutch to extend their mission by a year, paid tribute to the Netherlands' contribution and said it would maintain its current capacity in the area.
"Dutch forces have served with distinction in Uruzgan, and we honor their sacrifice and that of their Afghan counterparts during the Netherlands' tenure in the province," Major Joel Harper, an ISAF spokesman, said in a statement.
"We have planned for the transfer to the new multi-national operation to ensure a smooth transition... We will maintain current capabilities," he said. The Netherlands' deployment began in 2006 and has cost the lives of 24 soldiers. NATO's request for an extension of the mission sparked a political row that led to the Dutch government's collapse in February, and the announced drawdown.
NATO and the United States have close to 150,000 troops in the country, but a mounting death toll for foreign troops has piled political pressure on the United States and its allies as voters grow increasingly weary of the blood price of the war.
The death toll for US soldiers in July was an all-time high of 66. A total of 408 foreign troops have died in the Afghan war so far this year, according to an AFP tally based on that kept by the icasualties.org website.
A Netherlands foreign ministry official said all soldiers would return home by September, while most hardware, including four F-16 fighter jets, three Chinook and five Apache helicopters would be back by the year's end.
In central Uruzgan province the Dutch forces' focus has been less on combat operations, and more on their "3D" approach of defence, development and diplomacy, which has been held up as a benchmark for other missions.
"The international community and NATO are helping Afghanistan stand on its own legs... The Netherlands has done its duty and fought for the security and reconstruction of Afghanistan," said Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Verhagen in a statement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai thanked the Netherlands "for the work that Dutch soldiers and development workers have done, and are still doing, in building the country".
But the Taliban remain very active in the province, where opium production is high, and the insurgents have welcomed the Dutch withdrawal, urging other countries to follow suit.
Canada is set to withdraw its entire force of 2,800 troops in Afghanistan next year, while Britain and the US have signalled that some troops will also leave in 2011 with an overall aim to end combat operations in 2014.
"This is the start. It's a chain -- the Dutch forces start to withdraw, followed by the Canadians, then the British by 2014. In the middle I think we will see a number of other NATO members... setting a timetable to leave," said Afghan political analyst Haroon Mir.
The Dutch will be replaced by an American-led coalition force including Australian, Slovak and Singaporean soldiers.
But Mir said that local residents' resistance to the Taliban was unlikely to toughen in Uruzgan, where he said security was worsening.
"In some districts people have risen against the Taliban but the problem is the Taliban have become very strong there so the local resistance will not do anything against them," said Mir.
Despite that, Dutch chief of defence, General Peter van Uhm, whose son was among the 24 Dutch casualties during the mission, said his troops had achieved "tangible results that the Netherlands can be proud of".
Since the start of its lead role in Uruzgan at a cost of some 1.4 billion euros (1.8 billion dollars) to the Dutch state, the number of NGOs doing development work in the province has risen from six to 50, according to a Dutch embassy document.
© 2010 AFP