By Robert H. Reid
Monday, August 2, 2010; A08
KABUL -- The Netherlands became the first NATO country to end its combat mission in Afghanistan, drawing the curtain Sunday on a four-year operation that was deeply unpopular at home and even brought down a Dutch government.
The departure of the small force of nearly 1,900 Dutch troops is not expected to affect conditions on the ground. But it is politically significant because it comes at a time of rising casualties and of growing doubts about the war in NATO capitals, even as allied troops are beginning what could be the decisive campaign of the war.
Canada has announced that it will withdraw its 2,700 troops in 2011, and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski has promised to pull out his country's 2,600 troops the year after.
That is likely to put pressure on other European governments such as Germany and Britain to scale back their forces, adding to the burden shouldered by the United States, which expects to have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of next month.
President Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing American troops starting in July 2011. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told ABC's "This Week" broadcast Sunday that only a small number of troops would leave in the initial stage.
The end of the Dutch mission took place amid bad news from Afghanistan -- including rising casualties and uncertainty over a strategy that relies heavily on winning Afghan public support through improved security and a better performance by Afghanistan's corrupt and ineffectual government.
July was the deadliest month of the nearly nine-year-long war for U.S. forces, with 66 deaths. U.S. commanders have warned of more losses ahead as the NATO-led force ramps up operations in longtime Taliban strongholds in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, which accounted for most of last month's American deaths.
Two more international service members were killed Sunday in fighting in the south, NATO said without specifying nationalities.
Twenty-four Dutch troops have died in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2006. Most of the Dutch force was based in the central province of Uruzgan, where it will be replaced by troops from the United States, Australia, Slovakia and Singapore.
-- Associated Press