Dutch Troops To Leave Afghanistan This Year

A fierce debate about the mission in Afghanistan has brought down the government in the Netherlands. Dutch troops were scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by August but NATO commanders pleaded for an extension. Holland's center-right prime minister had argued in favor of troops staying longer. But his coalition partners disagreed, and the Labor party left the government. There will be a new election but in the meantime, the August deadline stands.

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Nearly all the NATO allies have had fierce internal debates about their mission in Afghanistan. In the Netherlands over the weekend, that issue brought down the government. The ruling coalition collapsed in a bitter dispute over whether to extend the deployment in Afghanistan, where 21 Dutch soldiers have died. And that means Dutch troops will begin leaving Afghanistan this summer. From Amsterdam, NPR's Eric Westervelt has more.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The Dutch political crisis is a domestic quarrel with international implications. For months, the fragile coalition between the center-right Christian Democrats and the leftist Labor party bogged down in squabbles over the budget, an Iraq war inquiry, and other issues. The Afghanistan deployment was the final straw.

The Labor party withdrew from coalition over the weekend, accusing the prime minister of reneging on a pledge to withdraw the Netherlands nearly 2,000 soldiers by August. NATO commanders had urged Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende to extend the mission he had argued in favor of doing that in some form. But Franz Timmermans, of the Labor Party, told Radio Netherlands his group would keep its promise to Dutch voters.

Mr. FRANZ TIMMERMANS (Labor party): When we extended it two year ago, we made a very, very specific provision, that under all circumstances, the mission would end in 2010.

WESTERVELT: The current government will continue in a caretaker mode until new elections are held in May. On Sunday, Balkenende said Dutch soldiers will now start to return home from Afghanistan by August and be completely out by the end of the year.

Polls show that will please a majority of Dutch voters who've grown tired of what they see as America's war, says Professor Laura Horn of Amsterdam's Free University.

Professor LAURA HORN (Amsterdam's Free University): There is an element of disillusionment, of, you know, we'll just let the U.S. do their war, because we have fought enough. We have incurred enough casualties. We have done our share. So let, now, other people take over.

WESTERVELT: The Netherlands is among the top 10 contributing nations to NATO's Afghanistan mission. The Dutch pullout comes as the U.S. has significantly upped its military commitment and urged NATO allies to do the same.

Vice President Joe Biden reportedly called the Dutch prime minister to lobby for a troop extension. Edwin Bakker is a senior fellow at the Netherlands's Institute for International Relations.

Mr. EDWIN BAKKER (Senior fellow, Netherlands's Institute for International Relations): And now you see that one partner has always been regarded as a country able and willing to deliver is now pulling out, completely. That's really a worry to NATO. It's a worry to the United States, and of course, it's a worry to a lot of Dutch who think that our image will be negatively influenced by this.

WESTERVELT: No one thinks the withdrawal of some 2,000 Dutch soldiers will have a major strategic or tactical impact on the war. But there are concerns it could be the first major crack in the coalition. The French have resisted sending more soldiers. The Germans have reluctantly proposed sending just a few hundred more. The Canadians have said they're pulling out of Afghanistan by the end of 2011.

Lawmaker Hans Hillen(ph), a leading member of the Dutch Christian Democrats, says he hopes Holland's allies realize the country is caught up in a domestic political fight and will have some sympathy.

Mr. HANS HILLEN (Dutch Christian Democrats): It's just the instability of politics. The cabinet has critical (unintelligible) problem. Anything would have caused the downfall of this cabinet. I think that most of the real friends of NATO, the United States or Germany or Great Britain will pity us.

WESTERVELT: Yet Hillen concedes pity is hardly a foundation for viable foreign policy, and analysts here worry the Dutch political system is now in turmoil with no strong leadership and now clear way out of the crisis.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Amsterdam.

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