A former pupil of St Joseph's School in Newport, Owen Quinn, is on work experience in my office. Owen has written a fascinating and insightful piece on the background to the withdrawal of Canadian and Dutch troops from Afghanistan.
In July 2011 Canada ended its combat role in Afghanistan after ten years during which the once popular war deteriorated into a campaign in which the losses were felt to be too great to bear for a country which had become increasingly disillusioned with the aims and also sceptical of the potential successes that the fighting could bring. Prior to their withdrawal Canada had suffered a total of 152 fatalities in the conflict.
At the beginning of the war in 2001, there was widespread public support for a war on terror with 74% of Canadians supporting a US led invasion of Afghanistan in order to increase their domestic security. The original aim was to pull out of Afghanistan in 2009 but there was always scope for this to be extended. As the war went on and especially from 2006 onwards, the Canadian forces became involved in increasingly heavier fighting which in turn led to large amounts of casualties. This resulted in an increase in the discontentment felt about the war both in Parliament and among the general public with a total of 56% of people opposing the war by 2008. Interestingly in October 2011, 57% of Britons wanted the troops brought home immediately from Afghanistan portraying similar levels of opposition to what was experienced in Canada. This increase in opposition in Canada led to the creation of a panel in 2007 that was headed by a former Prime Minister which was given the task of examining the current role of Canada in Afghanistan and also exploring a way forward and an end to the campaign. The Manley report was published in 2008 and raised serious questions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. It stated that “the course of the conflict has caused us all to question whether Canada’s involvement has been right or effective, and whether it will succeed.” It concluded by rejecting a sudden withdrawal but did propose a 2011 deadline for leaving. This was then adopted by the Canadian Parliament.
It can be seen therefore that there was quite a drastic shift in the perception of the war amongst Canadians from the optimism and enthusiasm at the start of the war which gave way to weariness and criticism which had descended upon both politicians and the public a decade later. This change can be exemplified by Prime Minister Stephen Harper who was originally a supporter of the war but rejected a further extension of the deadline beyond 2011 by stating that; “We’re not going to win this war just by staying, quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency.” Faith in the ability of the army to deliver success in the war was lost. In 2008 only 28% of Canadians believed the war would be successful. There was acceptance not only that the war would never really be won in Afghanistan but also there was a feeling that this war was having no positive impact on the domestic security of Canada and could potentially be making it more of a target for terrorist attacks. There was mutual agreement that a decade of war was enough and that there was no longer any real appetite to continue. However around 950 soldiers are still in Afghanistan to train local security forces.
In 2010 the Netherlands became the first NATO country to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The Dutch troops were felt to be a success and were popular amongst the locals in Afghanistan but their involvement came at a cost with 24 of their soldiers losing their lives and a further 140 being injured.
The Netherlands entered Afghanistan in 2006 and originally aimed to stay for just 2 years before departing in 2008. However a failure by any of their NATO allies to take on their responsibilities led to them eventually extending their stay for a further 2 years until 2010. The debate over their eventual departure in 2010 led to the collapse of the coalition government in the Netherlands. This occurred because before their departure the Netherlands had come under extreme pressure from NATO, and the USA in particular, to extend their stay in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister eventually decided that he wished to extend the deadline for withdrawal despite the Parliament rejecting this in October 2009. However his government collapsed before this could be agreed upon as their coalition partners, the Labour party, withdrew from the government stating that it would be a betrayal of the Dutch people to extend the stay for their troops when the war was unpopular amongst the public and they had already promised to leave previously once in 2008 and then again in 2010. The collapse of the government ensured that the Parliament would not be able to agree upon an extension past the 2010 deadline and so the troops were withdrawn.
Opposition to the war was apparent throughout the conflict and this was subsequently reinforced by a sudden leap in the opinion polls for the Labour party following their withdrawal from the government. Opinion polls throughout the war had shown firm opposition to the war and there was a general feeling by the end that the Dutch had done enough in Afghanistan and that it was now the turn of another country to take on the responsibilities of some of the heaviest fighting. There was also resentment that some of their NATO allies were unwilling to rotate their troops to the dangerous south which would allow Dutch troops to move to relatively safe areas and so potentially reduce the number of casualties that they were suffering. These concerns and issues resulted in the prevailing attitude that the Netherlands’ small military had suffered a relatively large amount of casualties and was being stretched to its limit. The burden of the war was felt to be too great and therefore the majority of the population was happy to see an end to the war.