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Will Others Follow Dutch and Leave Afghanistan?

The Dutch government has collapsed over whether to keep its soldiers in Afghanistan. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what effect - if any - that will have on other nations that have troops in that country under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

About 2,000 Dutch troops have been in Afghanistan's southern province of Uruzgan since 2006. They are part of the 86,000 troop NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Analysts say NATO has three objectives in Afghanistan. The first is to assist the Afghan government in its efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country. The second is to train the Afghan army and police. And the third is to hunt down and eliminate insurgents in southern Afghanistan - home of the Taliban, ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.

About 1,500 of the 2,000 Dutch troops, along with American and British forces, are engaged in fighting insurgents and the Taliban. The remaining 500 Dutch forces are involved in civilian reconstruction efforts and training the afghan army and police.

Dutch troops withdrawal

But now Dutch troops will begin to return home this August, following the collapse last month of the government over its Afghan policy. One of the major coalition members - the Labor Party - left the government saying it would not support extending the Afghan deployment.

During a recent news conference in Washington, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen did not seem alarmed by the decision. "I consider this a purely domestic Dutch problem and I am not going to interfere with [a] domestic political situation which is already complicated. I do not think what has happened in the Netherlands will have any impact on the situation in other countries," he said.

But Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations says the Dutch decision came at a bad time, especially when NATO is engaged in a military offensive in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.

"It is very bad timing. It comes on the heels of President Obama's effort to get more European troops into the fight. And Obama enjoyed a reasonable amount of success in doing so. He got 30,000 troops from the United States and somewhere close to the 10,000 that he asked for from Europe. It sets a bad precedent because it suggests that countries are one by one going to start leaving the coalition, and it raises questions about who is going to take over from Dutch troops in the province where they have been the lead in fighting the insurgency," he said.

The Australians, who have about 1,500 troops in Uruzgan, say they will not take over the lead role once the Dutch leave.

"Domino effect"

Many analysts, such as Sean Kay with Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, ask whether the decision by the Netherlands to begin withdrawing troops in August will have a domino effect on other countries.

"If you listen to NATO officials, they will tell you no," said Kay. "But at the end of the day, decisions on military contributions are taken in the capitals. And they are taken by politicians who have to be responsive to and reflective of public opinion."

"And public opinion in Europe in particular, but also in Canada has been turning away from this mission for years now. And the elites in government have been trying to make a stand-up case for the commitment to the alliance and NATO. But that is just becoming increasingly difficult for them," he added.

Canada is expected to begin withdrawing its 3,000 troops in mid-2011.

London University NATO expert Michael Williams says the Canadians have been heavily involved in southern Afghanistan, in Kandahar. "They have pursued extremely difficult military operations with fighting not seen since the Second World War - and they have done a great job. They have also instituted a very strong development agenda," he said.

"But domestically, again, they have a public that is not so keen on the operation and the government has faced a few challenges from the opposition party about the role Canada has been playing. There was a very major study a couple of years ago saying unless more allies did more, the Canadians should leave. And I think the Dutch pulling out will certainly give more credence to the argument in Canada that they should leave as well in 2011," he continued.

Many analysts do not expect "a rush for the exits", as they put it. But they do say many governments will reassess their withdrawal strategies in the wake of the Dutch experience.