Worldwide political strains over the war in Afghanistan claimed their first national government this weekend as the Dutch ruling coalition collapsed over the question of whether to withdraw troops this year.
Conservative Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands phoned Queen Beatrix to dissolve parliament yesterday morning after his left-wing coalition partner withdrew from the government in the wake of an all-night debate over a NATO request to extend the presence of 1,600 troops beyond 2010.
Mr. Balkenende's Christian Democrats lost the support of the Labour Party, who have formed an awkward coalition for almost three years. The country's participation in Afghanistan has become an increasingly divisive issue in the coalition, and the Prime Minister's attempt to alter a promise to withdraw in 2010 became the last straw, opposition leaders said.
"Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together," Mr. Balkenende said at a news conference after the debate collapsed. "There is no road left for this cabinet to walk."
An election will be called before May. The result makes it almost certain that the Netherlands will be the first major participant in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization fighting coalition to withdraw from the war, almost a year ahead of Canada's promised withdrawal - a decision that will create a military vacuum in Afghanistan's war-ravaged south after the current surge of 30,000 extra U.S. troops ends.
The war has become increasingly unpopular with the public in the Netherlands, which has seen 21 soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been putting increasing pressure on countries participating in the 40-nation International Security Assistance Force to stay longer or send more troops to sweep the Taliban out of the south and east and then train hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police to take charge, all within a few years.
But key countries have not been forthcoming. While NATO announced at a January summit that it had added 5,000 troops to match the U.S. surge, most of these were temporary commitments made almost a year earlier by countries such as Britain. And that is still far short of the 10,000 NATO soldiers demanded by Afghan coalition commander General Stanley McChrystal to match the U.S. contribution.
In the Netherlands, the pressure from Mr. Rasmussen proved too much. The Prime Minister had already extended a promise to withdraw the country's troops in 2008 by two years.
Mr. Balkenende and his party had decided in recent months that another year, at least, would be needed in order to maintain stability and ensure an orderly transition to Afghan rule in the dangerous province of Uruzgan, where the Dutch lead a NATO task force that often fights alongside the Canadians in the adjoining province of Kandahar. At the Prime Minister's urging, NATO earlier this month filed an official request with the Dutch to extend the country's troop presence beyond the December, 2010, deadline.
This drew the ire of Mr. Balkenende's coalition partner, who had made an early end to Dutch participation in Afghanistan a condition for joining the coalition in 2007. Mr. Balkenende has led four coalition governments in the past decade, all of them ending in a collapse of confidence.
On Friday, Labour Leader Wouter Bos, who was serving as finance minister in the government, asked the government to confirm its earlier promise to begin withdrawal in August and have troops gone by December.
Citing the NATO formal request, the Christian Democrats refused to make that confirmation, and after 16 hours of debate, Labour decided to quit the government.
"We agreed to a plan when our soldiers went to Afghanistan," Mr. Bos said in announcing his party's withdrawal. "Our governing partners didn't want to stick to that plan, and on the basis of their refusal we have decided to resign from this government."
For the next several weeks, the Netherlands will be governed by a rump minority government consisting of the Christian Democrats and the tiny conservative ChristenUnie party, which together hold 47 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
Under Dutch law, they will be required to hold elections before May. Dutch commentators worry that the discord between the mainstream moderate conservative and centre-left parties could hand a record number of seats, and possibly a key role in government, to Dutch far-right parties such as the Party of Freedom led by anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders.