Dutch Afghan mission's future dodgy after government collapse
An extension of the Dutch troop deployment in Afghanistan, often held up as an example for such missions, was uncertain after it sparked the collapse of the government in The Hague on Saturday.
The future of the mission "depends on what the new government will decide", deputy defence minister Jack de Vries told journalists after an early-morning announcement of the three-party, centre-left governing coalition's fall.
New parliamentary elections are expected by June.
The mission in its current form, scheduled to run out by year-end, "will be wound up as planned", added defence minister Eimert van Middelkoop's spokesman Joop Veen.
"The outgoing cabinet must make a list of all the decisions that it must still take, and of those it is leaving for the next cabinet."
The PvdA Labour Party of finance minister Wouter Bos withdrew from the governing coalition Saturday after 16 hours of last-ditch talks failed to shift its stance that the mission must end by 2010.
Around 1,950 Dutch troops are deployed in Afghanistan, mainly in the southern Uruzgan province, where opium production is high and the Taliban very active, under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The Dutch mission, which started in 2006, has already once been extended by two years and has cost 21 soldiers' lives.
NATO reiterated on Saturday it remained of the opinion that "the best way forward for the overall mission could be a new smaller Dutch operation after August 201O."
Such a mission would focus on the provincial reconstruction team in Uruzgan, with greater emphasis on training, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said.
The government decided in 2007 to start its troop withdrawal in August 2010, to be completed by year-end. But NATO and the United States have urged The Hague to reconsider, lauding the good work of its soldiers.
"The Netherlands' contribution in Uruzgan is first-rate and exemplary," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Balkenende, dated 4 February.
"The standard which has been achieved by your armed forces and civilian personnel in one of the most challenging parts of Afghanistan has become the benchmark for others. It is of paramount importance for the success of ISAF", a force of some 85,000 soldiers.
In July last year, US President Barack Obama paid tribute to the Dutch contribution as "one of the most outstanding" military operations in Afghanistan.
"What I shared with the prime minister was the hope that even after next summer that there is the ability for the Dutch to continue to apply the leadership and the experience that they've been able to accumulate over these past years," Obama said during a visit to Washington by Balkenende.
The Dutch mission is known for its "3 D" approach of defence, development and diplomacy. Since the start of its lead role in Uruzgan, the number of NGOs doing development work in the province has risen from six to 50.
A Dutch embassy document states that 50,000 children are attending school in Uruzgan, four times as many as in 2002. A million fruit trees have been distributed to farmers to provide an alternative livelihood to poppy cultivation.
The Dutch are also helping build a road between the province's two most populated towns, Chora and Tarin Kowt, in a bid to boost trade.
"Long-term security and stability is only achieved through investing in development and governance, human rights and poverty reduction," states the document.
The Netherlands has given more than EUR 300 million (about USD 400 million) in development assistance to Afghanistan since 2006.
Last year, Balkenende stressed the Netherlands would "not turn its back" on" Afghanistan after ending its stint as the lead military nation in Uruzgan.
"Most political parties want the Netherlands to remain involved in the reconstruction (of Afghanistan)," Wim van den Berg, president of the AFMP soldiers federation, said.
Another union, OCAM, accused politicians of using the issue for political gain.
"It is scandalous that such games are being played on the backs of our soldiers," it said in a statement.
AFP/ Marie-Laure Michel / Expatica