Will the Dutch government fall over troop deployment?

Prime minister Balkenende (centre) and his deputy prime ministers Bos (left) and Rouvoet (right) at Thursday's debate about the Uruzgan mission.
By Mark Kranenburg and Derk Stokmans

The two biggest parties in the Dutch coalition government are going head to head over the possible extension of the mission in Afghanistan. The collision could mean the premature end of prime minister Balkenende's fourth cabinet.

The last Dutch soldier will leave Uruzgan by the end of 2010, that has been our promise to voters. This mantra, repeated consistently by Dutch Labour leader and deputy prime minister, Wouter Bos, for the last couple of days, has thrown the ruling coalition into crisis.

This is not the first time the two biggest parties, the Christian democratic CDA and Labour party PvdA, are at each other's throats since 2007, when they formed a coalition government with the orthodox Christian ChristenUnie. With local elections just two weeks away, however, both sides could try to use the government crisis for political gain.

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In 2007, the Dutch parliament agreed to a cabinet proposal to extend the mission in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan under one condition: the deployment would be terminated no later than December 1, 2010. But this 'promise to the electorate' did not take into consideration a Nato request to stay on - faxed to prime minister Balkenende at 1:47 pm on Thursday, February 4. The Atlantic alliance has asked the Netherlands to maintain a smaller mission of 500 to 700 personnel for an extra eight months. Not quite the size of the current 1,600 troop deployment, but still substantial.

Limited in size and duration

Bos and his Labour party are dead set against this. They have always been opposed to an extension of the mission, while foreign minister Maxime Verhagen, a Christian democrat, has not wanted to rule out a longer presence in Uruzgan.

For months, all ministers involved have been discussing possible future involvement in Afghanistan, and "several options" have been reviewed. Based on those discussions between cabinet members, Verhagen encouraged Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen to make his request explicit earlier this month.

In his request, Rasmussen promised the Dutch they would no longer have to lead the mission in Uruzgan as of this August, and a plan would be drafted to make sure the troops would really be able to leave one year later. Their tasks would also change: the Dutch should focus on training Afghan soldiers who could then take over control of the area rather than fight insurgents themselves.

The request could be read as a termination of the current mission and the beginning of a new deployment, limited in both size and duration. But instead of using it to forge a compromise, Labour is responding as if it were a declaration of war. Insiders say the party believes Verhagen is forcing this one option to paint a picture of Labour as a self-absorbed bunch. CDA members, however, say they are surprised by Bos' reaction. He knew where Nato's request was coming from, didn't he?

Both parties are digging their heels in deeper. A compromise is no longer on the table. The fingerpointing has begun.

Ulterior motive

Wouter Bos has long had a reputation for making U-turns. He has frequently been attacked, by CDA in particular, for breaking his promises to voters. A common experience for any politician governing by coalition, but the accusation has stuck to Bos more than anyone. He is now accused of frustrating progress on the Uruzgan issue for the sole reason of not wanting, yet again, to be seen as a flip-flopper.

Both CDA and ChristenUnie feel he should reconsider a decision made two years ago, when international circumstances were different. Many in The Hague wonder how he can possibly oppose this request by Nato, when it is the best way for the Netherlands to face up to its international responsibilities.

It must be that Bos has another purpose, they say.

Mutual distrust

The Labour leader has now brought the issue to a head by demanding cabinet makes a decision on Uruzgan no later than Friday. Both other coalition partners have declared this impossible, both in terms of content and procedures. Bos' demand, they say, is nothing short of an attempt to solicit voters' favour. The upcoming municipal elections, set for March 3, are shaping up to be dramatic for the PvdA. As would national elections that could be the result of this crisis. Bos is trying to turn the tide.

The distrust Labour has for the CDA is hardly smaller. Labour insiders say their party has offered to take its international responsibility and step up in other regions in Afghanistan. They accuse the fellow parties in the coalition of acting surprised about Bos' stand on Uruzgan. Christian democrats just want to get their way again, they say. Well, that won't happen this time.

In this coalition, aiming for a head on collision and hoping the other party will get out of the way, has worked for both CDA and Labour in the past. But past results are no guarantee for the future.

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