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Dutch government collapses

The collapse of the Dutch government after marathon talks on Afghanistan raises difficult questions both for future of NATO’s mission against the Taliban and the nature of politics in the Netherlands.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced in the small hours of Saturday morning that Labor Party ministers were resigning from the coalition government.

Balkenende’s center-right Christian Democratic Appeal and the conservative Christian Union party will stay on in government until elections likely to be held in May.

The cabinet split over a request from NATO for the Netherlands to extend the mission of its troops serving in Afghanistan’s troublesome southern province of Uruzgan. Most of the 1,900 soldiers in Afghanistan are stationed in Uruzgan.

NATO believes the Dutch troops have played an important role in providing relative stability in the province by building up close ties with local leaders and marginalizing the Taliban through a focus on diplomacy and development.

Allied commanders say the Dutch approach has been a model for the new wider NATO approach of focusing on building confidence and security in Afghanistan’s main population centers.

However, the Dutch parliament voted in 2007 to pull the troops out of Uruzgan mission this autumn, the Labor Party flatly refused to consider the NATO request for an extension, despite a direct appeal to its leader Wouter Bos from the Obama administration.

NATO officials fear any incoming replacement force will struggle to rebuild the trust Dutch officers have developed with tribal leaders in Uruzgan, undermining the fragile security there. They are also concerned a pull out could set an example for other allied nations — notably Canada which is under public opinion pressure to wind down its operation in Kandahar.

The Afghan mission in unpopular among Dutch public opinion. The Labor Party which has been dropping in the polls was unwilling to change its position on pulling out of Uruzgan ahead of municipal elections scheduled for next month.

The Netherlands now faces a period of political uncertainty ahead of the parliamentary elections. The in-fighting between Labor and the Christian Democrats within the coalition government may damage both the main parties in the eyes of the electorate, which could benefit the two rival opposition liberal parties or the radical new force in the country’s politics — the far right Freedom Party.

Over the past few years, the Freedom Party has risen to prominence under its stanchly anti-Islamic leader Geert Wilders who has likened the Koran to the writings of Adolf Hitler and warns about the growing influence of Muslim immigrants in the country. Mainstream politicians fear the Freedom Party could emerge as the biggest winner from the squabbling among traditional politicians.

Although the centrist parties are likely to band together to stop Wilders getting a toehold in the government, any gains by his party could see a further hardening of the traditional Dutch tolerance towards new immigrants.

As for NATO’s headache in Uruzgan, Western alliance could hope that Balkenende’s Christian Democrats and the liberals are able to form a new coalition more amenable to extending the mission. But the liberals are divided on the issue, and both the Freedom Party and smaller parties on the left are opposed to keeping the troops there. It looks likely allied commanders will have to draw up contingency plans for a Dutch withdrawal by the end of the year.