KABUL (Reuters) - The Netherlands began pulling its 2,000 troops out of Afghanistan on Sunday after a political row brought down the Dutch government in June and as other Western nations show misgivings about their role in the war.
While the withdrawal is unlikely to be felt on the battlefield, it hurts the “international” image that Washington promotes for the U.S.-dominated, 150,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The Dutch officially ended their mission without public ceremony or even any announcement from ISAF on Sunday.
“The decision like this one ... must not be seen in an isolated way,” Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz told a regular news conference.
“The overall forces posture of ISAF and of the Afghan security forces as well is increasing, so we do have the necessary force posture,” Blotz said.
The Netherlands was the lead nation in Uruzgan province, where it had about 1,400 troops, plus around 500 at headquarters or elsewhere. During its mission, 24 Dutch troops were killed and 140 wounded, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
“The Netherlands has taken its responsibility, and put its shoulders under security and reconstruction in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs minister Maxime Verhagen said in a personal message to the Dutch command in Uruzgan, the statement said.
He added that the Netherlands would continue its diplomatic relations with Afghanistan and financial support for the country’s development.
Dutch newspapers, which put the cost of the four-year mission at over a billion euros, asked on Sunday if it was worth it — with most judging it a partial or modest success.
Until the Dutch departure on Sunday, ISAF listed 46 nations as contributing to the force, but critics say its cohesion was compromised from the start by myriad separate rules of engagement that each country insisted its troops follow.
The Dutch, who were partnered by a smaller force of Australians in the province, were one of few European nations to place few caveats on operations.
A conference of Afghanistan’s stakeholders last month agreed a 2014 target for President Hamid Karzai’s government to take responsibility for security across the country, but many ISAF contributors plan to leave long before then as their presence — as in the Dutch case — becomes a hot domestic political issue.
The Dutch Labour party left the governing coalition in February because it did not want the mission to continue beyond August. A new government has still to be formed following parliamentary elections in June.
Canada will pull out its nearly 3,000-strong force next year, while 2011 is also when U.S. President Barack Obama wants to start a gradual withdrawal of around 100,000 troops, a figure swollen in the last six months by a surge that aims to take on the Taliban in their spiritual homeland of Kandahar.
Germany, the third largest ISAF contributor with 4,400 soldiers, also aims to start a pullout next year, handing over responsibility for security in at least one of the nine northern provinces it controls to local forces.
The Taliban, who last week congratulated the Dutch ahead of their withdrawal, view pullouts or talk of timetables as a sign they are winning the war, and ISAF casualties have soared with record numbers of deaths in June and July.
According to www.icasualties.org, an independent website that monitors foreign troop deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 1,979 service members have been killed since the war began in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in Kabul and Catherine Hornby in Amsterdam; Editing by Rob Taylor and Jon Hemming