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Afghanistan: the timing of departure

Gavin Hewitt | 14:45 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010

troops_595_afp.jpgTiming is everything in politics. Or nearly everything. A decision taken one week can be perceived entirely differently a few months later. Politicians value highly the gift or skill of good timing.

So it is worth imagining the talk in Washington or Nato following the news that the Dutch are likely to begin withdrawing their 1,900-strong forces from Afghanistan as early as August. The Dutch three-party coalition collapsed because of the refusal of the Labour party to extend the military mission beyond the summer.

So to timing:

Nato forces are currently in the midst of an important assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah.

The Taliban's second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has been arrested. Other apparently senior figures have also been detained.

After setbacks, the Nato strategy is to try to build momentum - to reverse the impression that the Taliban are gaining ground. The military campaign is aimed at persuading the civilian population and the less hard-line Taliban that they should accept the government in Kabul.

Last year, after months of agonising, US President Barack Obama committed extra forces to Afghanistan. That surge is only just beginning.

Nato identified 2010 as the year to make a difference, to turn the corner.

So it is at this moment that the Labour party in the Netherlands decides to send its message. That is how some will see it in Washington. Rightly or wrongly. That just when the Taliban is feeling the heat, they hear that some nations are tiring of the conflict.

The Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who argued hard against the decision, was immediately aware of how this would be seen in the United States.

"When President Bush asked us to extend our action we say 'yes' and when President Obama, who has a lot of support in the Netherlands, made such a request we say 'no."

"People don't understand what we're doing," he went on to say "when the Netherlands became the first and only country to say 'no'"

The fear is that other countries will be emboldened to say "no".

In truth, much of the non-American commitment to the war in Afghanistan is wafer-thin. I was at Nato headquarters when, at a special meeting, leaders agreed to commit more forces. The US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, wanted 10,000. That figure will not be reached and some of the numbers are "fuzzy". Some of the extra troops were already in Afghanistan and some commitments appear to be evaporating.

In the Netherlands, however, many see the conflict very differently. Pulling out is popular. Twenty-one Dutch soldiers have died.

By all accounts the Dutch military is highly regarded. But many believe it is an unwinnable war and will point to Sunday's mistaken airstrike on a civilian convoy as an example of the difficulty in winning over hearts and minds. Some in the Netherlands will also want to see other Europeans like the Germans shoulder some of the tougher assignments.

Of late there has been a lot of European angst about the continent's perceived lack of impact on the world stage. Many fretted when President Obama decided not to attend an EU-US summit. Was Europe being marginalised? Was President Obama frustrated with Europe?

The inclination in some parts of Brussels is that influence grows out of structures. That is debatable. Whether the Dutch decision is right or wrong it sends a message and will be judged in parts of Afghanistan and in Washington.


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