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Dutch join exodus of Afghan allies

12 April 2013, 13:30

Kunduz - On an Afghan parade ground, Dutch soldiers stand to attention at a graduation ceremony for local police officers, one of many such scenes which will soon fade into the past.

The international military effort in Afghanistan since 2001 has seen scores of nations take up a variety of roles in the US-led campaign to defeat the Taliban insurgency and strengthen the nation's army and police.

But a decade later, budget cuts and war fatigue in Western capitals mean the 100 000 soldiers left serving in Nato's International Security Assistance Force are packing up and taking off as the mission prepares to close next year.

In June, the Dutch police training programme in the northern province of Kunduz, a powder keg of ethnic tension troubled by Taliban suicide attacks, will become the latest operation to shut down.

The mission has been cut short a year earlier than planned due to the closure of a German military base later this year and the small Dutch contingent will be unable to operate alone.

"In principle we would have stayed on, and it is true that we would have liked to continue," Dutch ambassador Han Peters said.

Goals downgraded

The Afghan police force is essential to the country's security as international troops head home, but its effectiveness is often undermined by corruption, abuse allegations, high absentee rates and drug-taking.

The Dutch admit many goals have been substantially downgraded.

"This centre is training more than 2 000 police officers annually, and that might fall to 1 000 after we leave," said Geoffrey van Leeuwen, the senior civilian Dutch representative.

"We accept that, and we also accept the air-conditioning might not work in a few years' time. Everything is relative and we are not looking for the highest level. It is about making some progress and doing things the Afghan way."

In 2010, the Netherlands was the first country to end a significant combat mission in Afghanistan, withdrawing nearly 2 000 soldiers from the central province of Uruzgan, a tough Taliban battleground and prime opium-producing country.

The Dutch began the Kunduz mission in 2011 but at the end of June 320 Dutch soldiers and civilian advisers will leave Afghanistan for the last time.

Magnet for criminal activity

Kunduz may be far from the insurgency hotbeds of the south and east, but it is rife with Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks competing for influence.

Only last month, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd watching a traditional horse-back game of buzkashi, killing at least eight people including a district police chief.

Responsibility for regular high-profile killings is unclear, but the Taliban, the Pakistan-based Haqqani network and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, are all active in the province.

The overland border crossing from Kunduz to Tajikistan is also a magnet for criminal activity as a smuggling route for drugs and insurgents, as well as offering Nato supply convoys as a tempting target for attack.

Despite such challenges, the police have been taught Dutch-style "community policing" designed to encourage interaction and cooperation with the local population.

"The Dutch are very relaxed people," said Kunduz police chief Khalil Andarabi. "But they have given us what we need - more training and a lot of work on how to do investigations and the whole rule of law process."

Pace of withdrawal quickening

Sergeant Dawlat Saeed, one of seven policemen who graduated on Sunday from an advanced course equipping them to train other recruits, said that policing standards had already improved.

"Some of the information they taught us we knew before, but much was new," said Saeed. "A few years ago, it was impossible to leave Kunduz town but now it is much safer."

The Dutch make no such claims themselves about improved security in Kunduz and as the 2014 deadline looms, the pace of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is quickening.

Australia will withdraw most of its 1 550 troops by the end of the year, New Zealand started pulling out ahead of schedule last month and France flew its last combat troops out in December.

Even the United States will send 34 000 of its 66 000 troops home over the next year.

Soon there will be no Dutch flag flying in Kunduz - one small sign that the long and often troubled ISAF mission is concluding nationwide.

"We don't know what the future holds here for the police," Dutch trainer Sergeant Major Bart Van Der Linden said. "But we hope for the best."



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