Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands speaks to the press during meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (not shown) in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, DC, July 14, 2009. (UPI Photo/Aude Guerruci/Pool) | License Photo
THE HAGUE, Netherlands, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- The collapse of the Dutch government over the country's role in Afghanistan is a major setback for the U.S.-led NATO mission.
The government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende collapsed last weekend after 12 Cabinet members from Balkenende's coalition ally, the center-left Labor party, resigned. The ministers walked away after Balkenende tried to extend the country's military contribution in Afghanistan.
Around 1,900 Dutch troops are stationed in Uruzgan province, where they fight Taliban insurgents and lead local reconstruction efforts, such as training police, building roads and schools.
"If they withdraw and leave these projects incomplete, then they will leave a big vacuum," Uruzgan Gov. Asadullah Hamdam, told the BBC.
The possible Dutch withdrawal, scheduled to start in August, comes at a terrible time for NATO. The alliance has put its hopes behind a long called-for strategy change, initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama and enacted by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Washington has committed 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan and expects its NATO allies to boost troops as well, but surges have been slowly coming.
NATO this month launched Operation Moshtarak, a major offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province. New rules of engagement place an emphasis on cooperation with local populations and try to minimize civilian casualties. After Helmand, the operation was due to focus on Uruzgan, where Dutch support would be critical to minimize civilian casualties.
But in the Netherlands, people say Dutch troops have stayed too long in the war-torn country.
They arrived in Afghanistan in 2006 and were to remain only two years but their presence was extended twice after NATO did not find new troops to replace them. Last year, Dutch parliamentarians voted that the mission must end by this summer, a decision Balkenende hasn't endorsed.
NATO has pleaded with The Hague to keep its troops in Uruzgan, where they have an excellent reputation. Even Dutch military commanders on the ground say they want to finish the job.
But this looks increasingly unlikely.
At home, the mission is deeply unpopular, with a majority of Dutch asked favoring a quick pullout. Twenty-one Dutch soldiers have died in Afghanistan -- a big number for such a small NATO ally.
The collapse of the Dutch government will lead to early elections and these are expected to favor parties that have campaigned to bring home the troops. They include the far-right Freedom Party headed by the infamous populist Geert Wilders, who is campaigning on xenophobic and anti-Islam slogans.