Sunday 21 February 2010
Dutch government collapses;
signals troop withdrawal
from Afghanistan war
by Nicholas Kulish
BERLIN -— A day after his government collapsed, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said Sunday that he expected Dutch troops to come home from Afghanistan before the end of the year.
A last-ditch effort by Mr. Balkenende to keep Dutch soldiers in the dangerous southern Afghan province of Oruzgan instead saw the Labor Party quit the government in the Netherlands early Saturday, immediately raising fears that the Western military coalition fighting the war was increasingly at risk.
Even as the allied offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Marja continued, it appeared almost certain that most of the 2,000 Dutch troops would be gone from Afghanistan by the end of the year. The question plaguing military planners was whether a Dutch departure would embolden the war’s critics in other allied countries, where debate over deployment is continuing, and hasten the withdrawal of their troops as well.
“The moment the Netherlands says as sole and first country we will no longer have activities at the end of 2010, it will raise questions in other countries and this really pains me,” Mr. Balkenende told the Dutch television program “Buitenhof” in an interview on Sunday, according to Reuters.
The collapse of the Dutch government comes as the Obama administration continues to struggle to get European allies to commit more troops to Afghanistan to bolster its attempts to win back the country from a resurgent Taliban. President Obama has made the Afghan war a cornerstone of his foreign policy and, after months of debate, committed tens of thousands more American troops to the effort.
“If the Dutch go, which is the implication of all this, that could open the floodgates for other Europeans to say, ‘The Dutch are going, we can go, too,’ ” said Julian Lindley-French, professor of defense strategy at the Netherlands Defense Academy in Breda. “The implications are that the U.S. and the British are going to take on more of the load.”
Dutch leaders had promised voters to bring most of the country’s troops home this year. But after entreaties from the United States, Mr. Balkenende tried to find a compromise to extend the Dutch presence, at least on a scaled-back basis. Instead, the Labor Party pulled out of the government after an acrimonious 16-hour cabinet meeting that ran into the early hours of Saturday.
Mr. Balkenende told Dutch television on Sunday that he now expected Dutch troops to leave Afghanistan as planned. "If nothing else will take its place, then it ends," he said, according to Reuters.
The Dutch troops have been important to the war effort, despite their small numbers, because about 1,500 of them were posted in Oruzgan.
Analysts said that new elections in the Netherlands, as well as the departure of the Dutch troops, now appeared inevitable.
The war in Afghanistan has been increasingly unpopular among voters in the Netherlands, as in many other parts of Europe, creating strains between governments trying to please the United States and their own people.
But the tension in the Netherlands also reveals how deep the fissures over the war have grown within the NATO alliance.
As the number of Dutch military casualties has increased — 21 soldiers have died — the public back home has grown increasingly resentful at the refusal of some other allies, in particular the Germans, to join the intense fighting in the south.
The probable loss of the Dutch contingent and the continuing resistance to significant increases in manpower by other allies demonstrate the extent to which the dividend expected from the departure of President George W. Bush, who was so unpopular in capitals across the Atlantic, has not materialized, despite Mr. Obama’s popularity in Europe.
“The support for Obama was always double-faced,” said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “It was never really heartfelt. People loved what they heard, but they never felt obliged to support Obama beyond what they were already doing.”
Since taking office, Mr. Obama has been pressing the non-American members of the coalition to increase their contribution, seeking up to 10,000 additional troops. While NATO has pledged around 7,000 troops, critics of the alliance’s efforts accuse it of fuzzy math: counting up to 2,000 soldiers who were already in Afghanistan but had been scheduled to leave after the recent election.
And even the 7,000 figure was notional; NATO is holding a “force generation conference” this week at which time official pledges will be made, and there are questions about whether it will reach that number.
The Dutch contingent is part of the roughly 40,000 troops from 43 countries who are aiding the United States in Afghanistan, most of those from NATO. The United States is fielding about 75,000 troops, but that number is expected to rise to about 98,000 by the end of the summer.
The Dutch troops were deployed to Oruzgan in 2006 and were originally supposed to stay for two years; that mandate already had been extended another two years to August 2010.
Analysts in the Netherlands said they expected the Dutch troops to leave on time because any deal to keep them there appeared all but impossible in the tumult following the government’s collapse.
“I don’t think there’s room, with a government falling and waiting for elections, for there to be a decision,” said Edwin Bakker, who runs the security and conflict program at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
Although American officials are concerned that an exodus by the Dutch could prompt other allies to follow suit, a sudden rush to exit seemed unlikely.
“There is a groundswell of distress in Europe, of feeling this isn’t working, but does that translate into electorates saying we’re going to vote you down? I don’t see that,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
But the collapse of the Dutch government reinforced the difficulty of holding together an alliance made up of a multitude of countries, each with its own fractious domestic politics.
On Saturday, Mr. Balkenende informed Queen Beatrix, the country’s head of state, of the government’s resignation. According to the Dutch media, she was vacationing in Austria, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs said a decision about whether to hold new elections would probably be made in the next several days. By law the election would have to be held within 83 days of the queen’s decision.
The question of retaining troops in Afghanistan was far from the only issue pulling apart the parties in the governing coalition in the Netherlands; the parties were also divided over a controversial decision to increase the retirement age and the impending need for deep budget cuts. But the dispute over the troops brought relations to the breaking point.
“The majority of the Dutch people say, ‘Go, we’ve done enough. Let other countries do it now.’ That’s a big majority and also the majority in the Parliament,” said Nicoline van den Broek-Laman Trip, a former senator from the Liberal Party, who said she supported the Dutch mission but also believed that it was time to pull back most of the troops, leaving F-16s and perhaps trainers for local Afghan troops.
“They’ve got a small military,” said Mr. Lindley-French of the Netherlands Defense Academy. “The force has suffered a great deal of wear and tear. The Dutch have hung in there.
“The real failing is the ability of NATO partners and allies to rotate through the south and the east of the country, where the real center of the struggle exists.”
Dexter Filkins contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, Scott Sayare from Paris, and Thom Shanker from Washington.
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