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US, NATO want Dutch to stay in Afghanistan

After deriding the Dutch mission to Afghanistan, the US now holds it up as an example.

Dutch soldiers sit in front of a fire in the Baluchi pass in Uruzgan province, Nov. 4, 2007. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Some time in February, the Dutch government must make a decision that could have profound implications for the future of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.

The administration in The Hague has said it will decide by March 1 whether to agree to United States requests for Dutch troops to remain in the strategic south-central Afghan province of Uruzgan or whether to obey the wishes of its parliament and pull them out by Dec. 1.

The 2,000 Dutch soldiers are a small part of NATO’s 84,500-strong force, but U.S. and NATO commanders are worried because the Dutch have spent almost three-and-a-half years patiently building up ties with the local population in Uruzgan, a conservative mountain region believed to be birthplace of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

U.S. officials fear a Dutch pullout could undo that work, unraveling tenuous progress made in stabilizing a volatile region inhabited by Pashtun tribes whose loyalty can swing between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A Dutch departure could also set a trend for other allies under pressure to pull out from the more troublesome parts of Afghanistan, starting with the Canadians in Kandahar.

Sixty nations open a meeting in London today that could set out the beginnings of an exit strategy by mapping a gradual handover of security to Afghan forces. However in the short-term NATO wants allies to send 10,000 more troops to serve alongside the 30,000 reinforcements being deployed by the United States.

U.S. commanders at one time derided the Dutch mission in Uruzgan, accusing them of running from a fight, preferring to work on development projects from the relative safety of the provincial capital Tirin Kot, rather than to pursue the Taliban fighters who infest the outlying highlands.

These days American officials at the highest level acknowledge the worth of the strategy, which the Dutch summed up with the slogan: “Don’t fight the enemy, make him irrelevant.”

The Obama administration has recognized that the Dutch approach of focusing on building confidence and security in the main population centers — including through talks with tribal leaders suspected of Taliban links — has had a major influence on its new approach to the Afghan conflict.