Dutch government falls over Afghan mission

The Dutch government coalition collapsed early Saturday over a NATO request to extend the country’s military mission to Afghanistan. “As chairman of this government, I was forced to establish there is no fruitful road for this cabinet to continue,” Balkenende said in a first statement after a 16-hour meeting failed to save the three- party coalition.

He said Labour’s demand to reject NATO’s request to remain active in the Afghan province of Uruzghan “placed a political mortgage” on the coalition’s cooperation and blocked a well-balanced debate about the extension of the mission.

Saturday afternoon, Balkenende spoke by phone to Queen Beatrix, who is currently on ski vacation in Lech, Austria. The Queen is expected to return to the Netherlands later Saturday.

A government spokesman said Balkenende intended to visit her immediately to submit his government’s resignation.

Formally, the Queen is to study whether the coalition can still be mended, but the three coalition parties each rejected that option already overnight.

Labour’s ministers are to leave office immediately after their resignation has been accepted. Christian Democrats and Christian Union are to continue the coalition until a new government is elected.

Under Dutch law, general elections may take place at the earliest 83 days after a cabinet resigns, which could mean a vote in mid-May.

Military unions expressed regret over the government collapse and noted the troops’ interests had never been a priority in the political debate on extending the military mission to Afghanistan.

Chairman of the military union AFMP Wim van den Burg said Labour’s “decision to pull the plug from the coalition” was “not in the interest of the Netherlands or its military.”

The Dutch troops would now not get the opportunity to finish their job in Afghanistan with their heads held high, he said.

The employers’ umbrella organisation VNO-NCW criticized the timing of the government collapse, as did the biggest labour union FNV and the umbrella organisations of health insurers and the country’s hospitals.

All expressed their concern that existing problems, most importantly necessary budgetary reforms as a result of the economic crisis, would not be dealt with until after a new government would take office in the summer.

Tension in the coalition rose earlier this week after Labour publicly demanded that the government reject NATO’s request to extend its military mission in Uruzghan, due to end in August 2010.

Labour’s move comes a week after The Hague informed parliament it would seriously consider NATO’s request and reply by March 1.

But on Wednesday, Labour insisted that the cabinet had decided in 2007 to “bring all troops back” by late 2010, a decision still backed by a parliamentary majority.

Labour has long opposed extending the mission in Afghanistan, while both other coalition parties, Balkenende’s Christian Democrats and the Christian Union, were prepared to discuss the matter.

And although the Christian Union’s parliamentary faction was reportedly divided over the issue, its faction leader Arie Slob said his party would ultimately support its ministers.

Overnight, Deputy Defence Minister Jack de Vries said his Christian Democrat party had been ready to compromise on the nature of a Dutch mission to Afghanistan.

Labour, however, refused to compromise, de Vries said, adding that the party also refused to admit that publicly airing a Friday ultimatum on the issue had been a mistake.

“Labour was forced to conclude there was no more credible way of continuing our participation in the cabinet,” party leader Wouter Bos said in a first statement.

“In the past, we have supported the Dutch mission in Uruzghan twice,” he said.

He added that while his party rejected continued military involvement in Uruzghan, Labour was prepared to remain involved in Afghanistan in alternative ways.

However, he said, “the other coalition parties did not want to look into our proposals.”

Bos said he did not regret publicly expressing his demands in the run-up to a government decision on the Afghan mission due no later than March 1.

“During election time, parties traditionally have more leeway to express party viewpoints,” he said, referring to local elections set for March 3.

Both the Christian Democrats and Labour would lose between a quarter and a third of their parliamentary seats if elections were held now. The Christian Democrats currently have 41 seats, Labour 33.

The Freedom Party PVV – which also opposes the Afghan mission and is critical on Islam and migrants – could become the second largest political party. Polls suggest it could more than double the nine seats it currently holds.

If the Queen accepts the government’s resignation, the military mission in Afghanistan is to end indefinitely in August. Any outgoing government is not authorized to make high-impact decisions.

The Netherlands has some 1,880 troops in Afghanistan, 1,250 of them stationed in Uruzghan. The Dutch International Security Assistance Force mission, which started in 2006 and was extended in 2008, is due to end in August.

Twenty-one Dutch soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2006.


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