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Dutch Cabinet Collapses Over Afghanistan Deployment

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's party had raised the idea of keeping a reduced Dutch force in Afghanistan beyond an August 2010 withdrawal deadline.
(RFE/RL) -- The Netherlands' coalition government has collapsed over disagreements on extending Dutch troops' deployment in Afghanistan.

After talks between coalition parties that lasted for some 16 hours, Christian Democrat Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced early today that the Labor Party had decided to resign from the government.

NATO has asked the Netherlands to extend the Dutch troops' deployment in Afghanistan past its planned withdrawal deadline of August 2010.

Balkenende's center-right Christian Democratic Alliance supported the idea of keeping a reduced force in Afghanistan beyond 2010.

But the Labor Party, the second-largest group in the ruling coalition, has opposed the extension of the troop deployment and called for the Afghan mission to end in August as planned.

Unpopular Mission

Some 2,000 Dutch soldiers have been stationed in Afghanistan's southern Oruzgan Province since 2006.

Twenty-one Dutch soldiers have been killed in the restive province and the Afghan mission is hugely unpopular among the Dutch.

According to initial plans, the troops were to have returned home in 2008, but the Dutch government extended their deployment after no other NATO country offered replacements.

Earlier this month, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen asked the Netherlands to take on a new training role and remain in Oruzgan until August 2011. The Christian Democrats said today the future of the Afghan mission now depends on forming a new government. An early election is expected to take place later this year.

Experts warn the Netherlands' potential decision not to extend its Afghan mission could have a domino effect among other NATO nations with troops with Afghanistan.

Opinion polls in many NATO countries suggest that the majority of people do not support their soldiers' presence in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Saidi, a political analyst in Kabul, tells RFE/RL that if Dutch troops withdraw from Oruzgan, it's possible that other NATO countries could also follow suit.

"The withdrawal of Dutch troops would be a serious blow for both Afghan and NATO forces," Saidi says. "The Netherlands is an important European and NATO country and if it withdraws from Afghanistan, other European countries too -- one after another -- would consider leaving Afghanistan."

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan was established in December 2001.

As of June 2009, the ISAF had more than 61,000 troops from 42 countries, including 26 NATO members and 10 partners along with two non-NATO states.

with agency reports