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Dutch Government Collapses Over Afghanistan Mission

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Stefan Bos

The Dutch coalition government has collapsed amid a political row over whether to extend the country's military mission in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was due to submit his government's resignation to Queen Beatrix later Saturday, leaving the future of its 1,600 soldiers stationed there uncertain.

After marathon talks that lasted till dawn Saturday, a visibly upset Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced there was in his words not enough trust to continue his three-party alliance, amid a row over the future of his country's military mission in southern Afghanistan.

The left-leaning Labor Party leaves the government because it wants the Netherlands to adhere to a scheduled military withdrawal of the bulk of its 1,600 troops from the Afghan province of Uruzgan by the end of August, 2010 despite a request from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to stay longer.

Mr. Balkenende told reporters he would offer the resignation of the current cabinet to the Dutch ceremonial head of state, Queen Beatrix. He says that he will offer the resignation of the ministers because there is "unfortunately no way forwards" for the coalition between his Christian Democrats and junior partners, the Labor Party and the Christian Union. He makes clear that Labor Party statements about Afghanistan have not only put the coalition under pressure but also what he calls "the care due" to Dutch men and women in Afghanistan and "the relationship with NATO partners."

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had asked the Netherlands to maintain a smaller presence, including a provincial reconstruction team in Uruzgan, to build on the perceived success Dutch troops had there and help guarantee a smooth transition to an eventual Afghan-led operation.

The Christian Democrats and Christian Union made clear they wanted to consider the request and at least come up with a carefully formulated government statement.

But Labor leader, and current Finance Minister, Wouter Bos, said this was unacceptable, as in his words, voters were promised that the last Dutch soldier would be home at the end of the current troop commitment. His party wants other NATO soldiers to replace the Dutch mission in Uruzgan, where 21 soldiers have been killed since the deployment began in 2006.
 
The withdrawal of the Labor Party leaves the largest party, the Christian Democrats, and its junior partner Christian Union with just 47 seats in the 150-member parliament. With no viable prospects for other coalitions, an early election is expected within three months, most likely in May.
Analysts say that could see a further rise in power of the far-right party of anti-immigrant politician  Geert Wilders, whose ranking in the polls rivals that of Mr. Balkenende's.

Dutch residents, who woke up with news of their government's collapse, have expressed different opinions about the crisis. Edo van Boer, for instance, said the break up of the coalition was expected. "It was unavoidable, those two parties, those big parties can't work together they have separate opinions about things. So it was unavoidable," he said.

Yet another Dutch person, who only identified herself as Lydia, believes the government crisis over Afghanistan comes at the wrong time. "They (Dutch soldiers) were building hospitals, schools etc. It was not a military mission. So I think it is very good for the peace in Afghanistan that they should stay but now I think they don't stay," she said.

The Dutch debate comes ahead of municipal elections in the Netherlands and at a time when opinion polls in many troop-providing European countries indicate growing public discontent with NATO operations in Afghanistan, amid a global financial crisis and shrinking defense budgets.

A possible Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen as another challenge for NATO. The Western defense alliance is already struggling to assemble 10,000 additional troops that its top commander in Afghanistan, General  Stanley McChrystal, demands to accompany the 30,000 extra American troops being deployed there.

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