Dutch troops withdraw from Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

Four years after entering the war in Afghanistan, the Netherlands formally ended its military mission there yesterday, becoming the first Nato member to leave the conflict.

The Dutch transferred command of the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan to the US and Australia in a small ceremony in the regional capital, Tarin Kowt. It marked the end of the country's involvement in a war that was long unpopular in the Netherlands, and which brought down the government in February when it fought over plans to extend the mission by another 24 months.

But while the departure of the contingent of 1,900 Dutch troops is not expected to make a material difference to the conflict, the departing soldiers spoke in regretful tones of a mission that they hinted was still incomplete. Speaking during the ceremony, Brigadier-General Kees van de Heuvel said it was "not easy to say goodbye". And top commander General Peter van Uhm, whose own son died in the conflict, said that "a lot still had to happen" after the Dutch forces' departure.

The country's Foreign Affairs Department released a statement saying the security situation in Uruzgan had "improved considerably" since the Dutch first arrived in Afghanistan. Lacking a police force in 2006, the province now boasted 1,600 professional police officers. Dutch forces were often praised by their Nato allies for building relationships with civilians, often riding bicycles and eschewing helmets.

But interest among the Dutch public has waned in recent months, replaced by concerns over the economy, June's early election and the subsequent coalition talks.