For more than a year now, the Canadian government has been relying on the Dutch to help ease our own military exit from Afghanistan next year.

The Dutch are scheduled to start pulling out this fall, nine months ahead of us, and have been seen as a comforting advance guard.

But when Canadians officials, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were in Holland last week for the Second World War ceremonies, they were clearly told that the Dutch may now dodge such a controversial advance role.

In fact, there is now growing sentiment that the Netherlands will leave behind military or police trainers, along with hundreds of combat troops to protect them.

In other words, the Dutch will do what Harper is adamant Canada won't — bow to urgent appeals from NATO and especially Washington for a continued military presence in Afghanistan.

So polite

This Dutch shuffle at the door — "No, after you, Canada" — will now leave our government as the only alliance member planning to completely abandon the current fight.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is welcomed by Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen at a conference on Afghanistan in March 2009. The Netherlands is now rethinking its plan to pull out of Afghanistan entirely later this year.(Michael Kooren/Reuters)

It also brings with it a chilling message for our prime minister: that the Dutch are clearly concerned about some kind of NATO-wide  opprobrium cascading down on those nations who want to leave the battlefield at this critical juncture.

After all, this change of heart is really quite dramatic (and likely disappointing for Harper). It was only this spring that the Dutch coalition government fell upon the suggestion that the Afghan mission be continued.

Labour bolted the coalition with the Christian Democrat's Jan Peter Balkenende in protest, and an election was set for early June.

But the conservative Balkenende is now trying to build new alliances to return him to power and the biggest surprise in recent days is that both the Green party and a moderate liberal alliance known as D66 have reversed themselves and now favour a significant Dutch training mission backed by hundreds of combat troops.

Self-respect

When I was in Holland last week for the liberation ceremonies marking the end of the European phase of the Second World War, I found Dutch military and political officials were confident of such a continued role.

There was a general feeling that the Netherlands is too acutely sensitive about its image for dependability to leave entirely.

"We know other countries question our lack of aggression in Afghanistan and think we're too soft," observed Dutch military historian Christ Clep.

Many in the country, he said, are still haunted by criticism of the decision 15 years ago to abandon a UN-protected enclave in the Balkans, which led to the notorious Srebrenica massacre of several thousand Muslims.

(By chilling irony, Canada had just a year earlier handed over protection for Srebrenica to the Dutch.)

"There is a very sensitive debate here over our mission," Clep stressed. "Some say our soldiers should fight more. They say 'Listen, we Dutch have only lost 23 dead and the Canadians have lost at least six times that number, so the Canadians have obviously being doing much more fighting.'

"This is touchy here because you're talking about courage. And that is a very sensitive subject in the Netherlands."

Air cover

Indeed, this sensitivity is being fuelled in part by the Dutch media.

For example, Radio Netherlands Worldwide recently reported that Dutch troops, now preparing to pull out of Afghanistan, fear they will be shunned by their allies.

"Feelings on the ground in Afghanistan regarding the Dutch pullout are running high among Americans," the reporter claimed.

"As for solidarity among the NATO members, that's non-existent. One person I know doubts whether the Netherlands will get any air-cover if it decides to move equipment by road to Kandahar during the pullout."

These fears seem extreme but there's little doubt the main Dutch pullout of 2,000 troops from Uruzgan province will seriously disrupt allied operations in the key battle areas of the south and Western forces are letting the Dutch know about it.

Dutch troops serve alongside 1,000 Australian troops in Uruzgan and are positioned just north of Canada's nearly 3,000-strong Kandahar mission.

The Aussies have made it plain they are none too pleased with the Netherland's planned pullout in August 2010. In this war, 2,000 allies are hard to replace, especially experienced ones.

The summer push

Given the pullout schedules, the  Dutch main force will be largely gone by the end of this year, by which time we Canadians will have started our massive seven-month-long departure operation, which will limit the combat use of many troops.

Combined, that is the equivalent of removing a full brigade of 4,800 (experienced) troops from the theatre and is one of the reasons behind the tough NATO deadline to try to drive the Taliban out of its Kandahar heartland, as well as neighbouring Uruzgan, by the end of this year.

This means an all-out effort just when counter-insurgency theories would suggest a slower, more patient approach.

"We'll never have more capacity than we have by late summer 2010," Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, director of operations in southern Afghanistan, said this week, explaining the urgent big push.

From a military assault standpoint, at least, Hodges said, "we'll never have it any better."

First to go

The Dutch are clearly hoping to take some of the sting out of their planned pullout by offering to help with what the American's insist is a desperate need for thousands of professional trainers for the fast-growing Afghan army and police.

As these trainers will require a few hundred troops, at least, to protect them, this means the Dutch will still have a military presence in Afghanistan for some years yet and the Canadians will thus become the first to leave completely.

Here at home, the Liberal opposition has hinted it might support a training role for our troops after 2011, and some Conservatives privately support such a function as well. 

But Prime Minister Harper has been staunchly single-minded in his refusal to leave any soldiers behind.

It is possible these recent Dutch warnings about the risks of total withdrawal may influence the PM. But I doubt he'll be moved by the views of the Dutch, or by any doubts within his own party.

One senses that Harper has formed his own steadily darkening view of Afghanistan's prospects.

We don't know how dark his view is. But it's a war, once considered vital to Canada's own national security interests, that he just doesn't want to be part of any more.