Dutch troops to leave Afghanistan
The Hague: The Dutch troop deployment in Afghanistan, often held up as a model for other peace missions, ends after four years on Sunday amid concerns about the void it will leave.
"We offer the majority of the population relatively safe living conditions and advancements in health care, education and trade," chief of defence, General Peter van Uhm, said of his troops' legacy in the southern Uruzgan province.
"We have achieved tangible results that the Netherlands can be proud of," he told a news conference on Wednesday.
Around 1,950 Dutch troops are deployed in Afghanistan, mainly in Uruzgan where opium production is high and the Taliban very active, under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
NATO had asked the Netherlands to extend the mission, which started in 2006 and has cost the lives of 24 soldiers, by a year to August 2011.
This sparked a political row that led to government collapsing in February and the end of the Dutch deployment.
The mission is known for its "3 D" approach of defence, development and diplomacy.
Since the start of its lead role in Uruzgan at a cost of some EUR 1.4 billion (USD 1.8 billion) 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.
It states that 50,000 children are attending school in Uruzgan, four times as many as in 2002. A million fruit trees have been distributed to farmers to provide an alternative livelihood to poppy cultivation.
The Dutch are also helping to build a road between the province's two most populated towns, Chora and Tarin Kowt, in a bid to boost trade.
And it has trained 3,000 Afghan soldiers, who "are now able to independently carry out operations”, according to Van Uhm.
"The work is not done," Rob de Wijk, director of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a policy think tank, said. "One does not leave as one starts registering success."
Jan Kleian, president of the ACOM military union, said he had spoken to several soldiers on the ground, "and they are not happy to leave".
"They want to finish what they started; the mission is not completed," he said.
Added Wim van den Berg, president of the AFMP soldiers' federation: "This mission cannot be completed in just a few years. It takes 20 or 30 years to bring security to such a war-torn country."
As from Sunday, Dutch troops will be replaced by American, Australian, Slovak and Singaporean soldiers.
In a letter to Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende in February, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote: "The standard which has been achieved by your armed forces and civilian personnel in one of the most challenging parts of Afghanistan has become the benchmark for others."
During a visit by Balkenende to Washington in July last year, US President Barack Obama described the Dutch troops as "one of the most outstanding militaries" in Afghanistan, and asked the country to consider staying on.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also thanked the Netherlands "for the work that Dutch soldiers and development workers have done, and are still doing, in building the country".
A ministry spokeswoman says all Dutch ISAF troops will be back home by September while the hardware, including four F-16 fighter jets, will be repatriated by year-end.