Leading article: Moral duty and self-interest

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The Independent Online

The political crisis unfolding in the Netherlands could have repercussions far beyond that country's borders. The Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, appears to be fighting a losing battle to convince members of his coalition government to support the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan. Not only could Mr Balkenende's government fall over this issue, the credibility of the Nato presence in Afghanistan (which is reliant on the arrival of Dutch reinforcements) could be fatally undermined.

In Afghanistan, the security situation is deteriorating at an alarming rate. There has been an upsurge in Taliban violence. And insurgents are adopting the horrific techniques of suicide bombing. A suicide attack in Kandahar province yesterday killed 24 people. And a Canadian envoy to Afghanistan died in a bomb attack in the same region on Sunday. A spokesman for the ousted Taliban regime has warned that more violence will follow. The country is showing ominous signs of going the same way as Iraq.

Nato countries must do everything in their power to prevent this from happening. Britain is right to honour its commitment to send 4,500 more troops to help to stabilise the country. And our government must put pressure on other Nato countries - especially the Dutch - to contribute too. With the US planning to withdraw thousands of troops, any shortfall in Nato boots on the ground could prove disastrous for the vulnerable Afghan government.

The world cannot turn its back on Afghanistan again. Unlike Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was indeed a sponsor of anti-Western global terrorism. Nato was right to support the US-led operation to oust that regime in 2001.

But, scandalously, Western promises have not been kept. Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections were undoubtedly a step forward for the country. But enormous problems remain. President Hamid Karzai's writ is largely limited to Kabul. Warlords hold sway over much of the rest of the country. And precious little of the reconstruction, promised by Nato countries in the wake of the US bombing campaign four years ago has taken place. Likewise, nothing has been done to wipe out the country's opium production, which remains the only reliable source of earnings for many Afghans.

The West has a moral duty towards the people of Afghanistan. But we should also heed the warning President Karzai made yesterday: if Afghanistan collapses, the country could easily become a staging post for international terrorism once more. It is in our self-interest that Afghanistan is not allowed to go under again.

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