Home> World
Dutch cabinet collapse makes Afghan mission up in the air

The Dutch government collapsed early Saturday over disagreements on extending the country's military mission in Afghanistan, which put the future of 2,000 Dutch troops serving in the war-torn country into doubt.

In a statement announcing his cabinet's fall, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said he would visit Queen Beatrice later in the day to offer the resignation of the Labor Party members of his government.

"As chairman of this government, I was forced to establish there is no fruitful road for this cabinet to continue," Balkenende said after a 16-hour marathon meeting failed to save the three-party coalition.

The stand-off came after Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos, leader of the Labor Party, drew a line in the sand over extending the Dutch mission in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan.

The Netherlands has around 2,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, 21 Dutch soldiers have been killed so far.

Bos rejected a NATO request to keep the Dutch forces in Afghanistan. But Balkenende's Christian Democrats, the leading coalition party, supported extending the military mission, which is due to end in August.

Analysts believe that the row should lead to the cabinet's fall is because the Afghanistan war has become very unpopular with the Dutch voters. In December 2009, the United States and its NATO allies readjusted their strategies in Afghanistan and pledged more troops. Their moves, however, put the Netherlands, a major troops contributor, in a dilemma.

The Dutch government has to keep a balance between accommodating NATO's request for more troops and soothing the growing discontent among the public with Dutch military presence in Afghanistan.

Recent opinion polls have shown many Dutch citizens neither support nor understand the continued troop deployment in Afghanistan, especially in the wake of controversial Dutch government support for the invasion of Iraq.

Taking the Dutch government's plight into account, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen earlier this month agreed to let the Dutch troops take on a new role in training and other civilian duties while asking that the troops extend their deployment until August 2011.

"The secretary general has sent a letter to Prime Minister (Jan Peter) Balkenende asking the Netherlands to consider making a new, smaller contribution," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said, adding the Dutch contingent was asked to focus "more on training and a managed transition to Afghan lead".

However, the letter meant to help get Balkenende out of trouble failed to narrow the chasm among the Dutch cabinet members.

Analysts say that the fall of the government may offer the Dutch government some sound reasons to pull its troops out of Uruzgan, but to the great annoyance of U.S. and NATO policy makers.

Indeed, the withdrawal of Dutch troops from Afghanistan would deal a heavy blow to the new strategy initiated by Washington and its NATO allies to stabilize Afghanistan.