- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 20, 2010

AMSTERDAM (AP) — The Dutch coalition government collapsed Saturday over whether to extend the country’s military mission in Afghanistan, leaving uncertain the future of its 1,600 soldiers fighting there.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced that the second largest party in his three-party alliance is quitting, in a breakdown of trust in what had always been an uneasy partnership.

Balkenende made no mention of elections as he spoke to reporters after a 16-hour Cabinet meeting in The Hague that ended close to dawn. However, the resignation of the Labor Party — which has demanded the country stick to a scheduled withdrawal from southern Afghanistan — would leave his government in the minority, and political analysts said early elections appeared inevitable.

Balkenende said his center-right Christian Democratic Alliance would continue in office together with the small Christian Union, and would “make available” Labor’s cabinet seats. But he did not spell out his intentions.

The coalition, elected to a four-year term, marks its third year in office on Monday.

“Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together. There is no road along which this cabinet can go further,” Balkenende said.

The Dutch debate comes as opinion polls in many troop-providing European countries indicate growing public opposition to sending more soldiers to Afghanistan amid a global financial crisis and shrinking defense budgets.

Dutch soldiers have been deployed since 2006 in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan on a two-year stint that was extended until next August.

Labor demanded that Dutch troops leave Uruzgan as scheduled. Balkenende’s Christian Democratic Alliance wanted to keep a trimmed-down military presence in the restive province, where 21 Dutch soldiers have been killed.

“A plan was agreed to when our soldiers went to Afghanistan,” said Labor Party leader Wouter Bos. “Our partners in the government didn’t want to stick to that plan, and on the basis of their refusal we have decided to resign from this government.”

NATO recently sent a letter to the government asking if it would consider staying longer — a move that the Western alliance normally would do only if it had a clear signal of agreement.

In Brussels, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said NATO would not comment on the internal political debates in member countries.

“Of course, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen continues to believe that the best way forward would be a new smaller Dutch mission, including a provincial reconstruction team in Uruzgan to consolidate the success that the Dutch have had and to transition to Afghan lead,” Appathurai said.

He said that whatever happened, the Afghan people should know that the alliance will “continue to provide support to them as long as necessary.”

Still, any Dutch withdrawal would be a worrying sign for the alliance, which has struggled to raise the 10,000 additional troops that its top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has demanded to accompany the 30,000 American reinforcements being deployed there.

Balkenende’s allies argued that a pullout would damage the Netherlands’ reputation as a nation that carries more than its weight in international peacekeeping missions, and could encourage other countries wavering over their military contributions to also withdraw.

“The future of the mission of our soldiers in Afghanistan will now be in the hands of the new Cabinet,” said Deputy Defense Minister Jack de Vries.

The split came after a buildup of tension over several weeks between Balkenende and Bos, the finance minister, mainly over Afghanistan and the government’s earlier political support for the war in Iraq.

“This is the end of this cabinet,” said Andre Rouvoet, leader of the third coalition party. He said Queen Beatrix, Holland’s ceremonial head of state, who will formally accept the resignations of the Labor ministers on Saturday, “will ask the remaining ministers to prepare for elections.”

It was an uncomfortable alliance of convenience from the start, with Balkenende and Bos exchanging unusually sharp barbs during the 2006 election campaign.

The acrimony surfaced again during a parliamentary debate Thursday over Afghanistan, with the two government leaders in open discord in the face of concerted attacks by the opposition parties.

Opinion polls suggest the Afghan war is deeply unpopular. Labor, which has been dropping in the polls, appeared determined to take a stand with next month’s scheduled local elections in mind.

Bert Koenders, the Labor minister for overseas development aid, said his party was abiding by the government’s promise when it prolonged the Afghanistan mission last time — that it would be the last extension.

“We are sticking the Cabinet decision of two years ago,” he said.

The Labor walkout leaves the coalition with just 47 seats in the 150-member parliament. Elections can be held as early as May under Dutch law, one year ahead of schedule.

An election within the next few months could see a further rise in power of the extreme anti-immigrant populist Geert Wilders, whose ranking in the polls rivals Balkenende’s.

Balkenende has been prime minister since 2002, but he resigned twice before because of the country’s fractious political alignments.

___

Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic and Bruce Mutsvairo contributed to this report.

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