Dutch become the first from NATO to quit Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Netherlands became the first NATO country to end its combat mission in Afghanistan, drawing the curtain yesterday on a four-year operation that was deeply unpopular at home and even brought down a Dutch government.
The departure of the small force of nearly 1,900 Dutch troops is not expected to affect conditions on the ground. But it is politically significant because it comes at a time of rising casualties and growing doubts about the war in NATO capitals, even as allied troops are beginning what could be the decisive campaign of the war.
Canada has announced it will withdraw its 2,700 troops in 2011, and President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland has promised to pull out his country’s 2,600 soldiers the year after.
That is likely to put pressure on other European governments such as Germany and Britain to scale back their forces, adding to the burden shouldered by the United States, which expects to have 100,000 troops here by the end of next month.
President Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing American troops starting in July 2011. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that only a small number of troops would leave in the initial stage.
The end of the Dutch mission took place amid bad news from Afghanistan, including rising casualties and uncertainty over a strategy that relies heavily on winning Afghan public support through improved security and a better performance by Afghanistan’s government.
July was the deadliest month of the nearly nine-year war for US forces with 66 deaths. US commanders have warned of more losses ahead as the NATO-led force ramps up operations in longtime Taliban strongholds in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, which accounted for most of last month’s American deaths.
Two more international service members were killed yesterday in fighting in the south, NATO said without specifying nationalities.
The Dutch departure was sealed after Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s government collapsed earlier this year over disagreement among coalition members on whether to keep troops in Afghanistan longer. His Christian Democrat party had heavy losses at parliamentary elections in June.
Twenty-four Dutch soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2006. Most of the Dutch soldiers were based in the central province of Uruzgan, where they will be replaced by soldiers from the United States, Australia, Slovakia, and Singapore. NATO spokesman Brigadier General Josef Blotz played down the significance of the Dutch move, saying that it did not signal a weakening of coalition resolve.
An escalation in fighting is likely to lead to a rise in civilian casualties, undermining support for the coalition among ordinary Afghans.
A minibus full of civilians struck a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan early yesterday, and Afghan officials said six of those on board were killed.
At least 270 civilians were killed in the fighting in July, and nearly 600 wounded — a 29 percent increase in civilian casualties over the previous month, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary.
UN figures show that the Taliban are responsible for most civilian deaths through suicide attacks and roadside bombs. Nevertheless, many Afghans still blame the coalition, arguing that without foreign troops, the Taliban would have little reason to mount attacks.
More than 200 Afghans marched through Kabul yesterday to protest the alleged deaths of 52 civilians in a NATO rocket attack in the south.
NATO has repeatedly disputed the allegations of civilian deaths, and Blotz said yesterday that a joint assessment team has only confirmed that one to three civilians may have died in the July 23 attack in the Sangin district of Helmand province.
Protesters carried photos of children allegedly killed or wounded in the missile strike and shouted “Death to America! Death to NATO!’’
“We should not tolerate such attacks. The Americans are invaders who have occupied our country in the name of fighting terrorism,’’ said 22-year-old Ahmad Jawed, a university student.
In a letter to NATO-led forces, the top US and coalition commander, General David Petraeus, reminded his troops they cannot succeed in turning back the Taliban without “providing [civilians] security and earning their trust and confidence.’’