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Dutch government collapse: Will other European troops now leave Afghanistan?

The collapse of the Dutch government Saturday shows how unpopular the war in Afghanistan is in Europe. Will other European nations pull their troops out of Afghanistan earlier than planned?

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announces that the second largest party in his three-party alliance is quitting in The Hague on Saturday. Balkenende's coalition government collapsed on Saturday when the two largest parties failed to agree on whether to withdraw troops from Afghanistan this year as planned.

Reuters

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By Robert Marquand, Staff writer / February 22, 2010

Paris

The collapse of the Dutch government this weekend, largely over keeping Dutch troops in Afghanistan, threatens to undermine the NATO mission in the central Asian nation. And, it may signal tougher political climes ahead for other European leaders supporting a troop presence in Afghanistan.

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The Dutch pullout, scheduled for August, comes at a time when NATO is undertaking a key offensive in Marjah and implementing a “hearts and minds” plan coordinated by the US administration.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende met today with Queen Beatrix at the Hague, following the collapse Saturday of his ruling coalition. The government – Mr. Balkenende's fourth – broke up after the liberals would not accept Dutch troops in Afghanistan beyond an August deadline. Now, the 2,000-strong Dutch contingent of troops will withdraw as scheduled from Afghanistan's Uruzgan region.

The Dutch collapse brings concern of a domino effect: Can European leaders, who have been out in front of their publics on Afghanistan, continue anteing up – or will this withdrawal further sap a flagging political will across Europe for the mission?

In response to President Obama's request for more troops from NATO nations, some 5,300 additional troops were committed by supporting governments, mostly from Europe, according to figures from the Jan. 28 London Conference.

But polls last fall showed 75 percent of Britons and 86 percent of Germans opposed the idea. Since then, polls in Europe show growing public support (a majority in most NATO countries) for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

One of the arguments made by supporters of a European role in the Afghan mission, unlike Iraq, is that it must be grudgingly supported as a test of the credibility of NATO and the unity of Western security in the face of terrorist threats from Al Qaeda. And, most of the heroin sold in Europe comes from opium grown in Afghanistan.

But analysts say the Dutch case underscores sentiments in Europe that 2011 should be the start of a withdrawal. “This won’t have a major effect on what [Europeans] will do between now and 2011. But then 2011 is tomorrow. The only thing is to achieve something that will work for that period,” says François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

The collapse of the Dutch government also calls into question The Netherlands continued role in NATO. It has long been a consistent and reliable partner in NATO operations, but is now opting out, pending a new election in May.

The Saturday collapse came after the widely debated Davids Commission report released on Jan. 21 that investigated Dutch participation in Iraq, not unlike the recent Chilcot Inquiry in Britain. Many say that the report - including allegations that its government fought in Iraq without a debate over merits or judicial oversight – has contributed to souring a war-weary public toward Afghanistan.

The Dutch coalition collapsed after Labour chief Wouter Bos withdrew his party from the ruling coalition. While Mr. Bos had gone along with a previous plan in 2008 to keep troops in Afghanistan, he made the political calculation that the tone of the country was so ambivalent, if not negative, about its troops posted in the embattled Uruzgan region, that it was worth the risk to withdraw.

Mr. Balkenende had wanted to keep troops in place – extending a mission that expires in August. But Bos argued that Dutch voters deserved to have the August commitment be met.

On Sunday Balkanade sounded frustrated, telling Dutch media that, "When President [George W.] Bush asked us to extend our activities we said yes, and when President [Barack] Obama, who has a lot of support in the Netherlands, made such a request we say no."

He earlier stated that, "People don't understand what we're doing. When the Netherlands becomes the first and only country to say no . . . that will lead to question marks abroad."

Still, the Dutch case reflects popular discontent in Europe. As Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations stated, “I would say it is the mood of the day. Everyone is talking about withdrawal, no one is talking about trying to hold on."

Mr. Obama has said that the US would start to withdraw from Afghanistan by July of 2011.

“The Americans have started the race for the exit door…by 2013-2015, but as soon as 2011. There is very little discussion about what our interests are in Afghanistan, or the effect of our policies on the people of Afghanistan,” says Mr. Riecke.

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