Dutch troops leave Afghanistan after four years as worrying void opens up

DUTCH troops ended their mission in Afghanistan yesterday 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.

Troops held a “change of command” ceremony at the main military base in central Uruzgan province where most of the country’s 1,950 soldiers have been deployed, said a Dutch embassy official.

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 honour their sacrifice and that of their Afghan counterparts during the Netherlands’ tenure in the province,” Major Joel Harper, an ISAF spokesman, said.

“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 US have close to 150,000 troops in the country, but a mounting death toll for foreign troops has piled political pressure on the US and its allies as voters grow increasingly weary of the blood price of the war.

Switzerland is the only country to have withdrawn its force until now, bringing its two soldiers home from Afghanistan in March 2008, Nato said.

A Netherlands foreign ministry official said all soldiers would return home by September, while most hardware, including F-16 fighter jets, would be back by the year’s end.

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