BERLIN // The collapse of the Dutch government on Saturday in a dispute over demands to withdraw the country's troops in Afghanistan has reinforced fears that Nato's front is crumbling, and that other western nations may bow to mounting public pressure to withdraw their forces. The 2,000 Dutch soldiers fighting in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan look certain to be pulled out this year after the prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, a Christian Democrat, failed to persuade his coalition partners in the Labour Party to extend the mission beyond August, when it is due to end.
The forces have been involved in some heavy fighting in Uruzgan, an important supply route for the Taliban insurgency, since they were deployed in Afghanistan in 2006, and 21 Dutch soldiers have been killed there. The troops were due to be withdrawn in 2008 but stayed on because no other Nato country offered replacements. The government had been discussing a Nato request for a further extension of the mission beyond August.
The deployment is deeply unpopular in the Netherlands, as it is across Europe, and a new election, which is now due to take place by June, looks sure to seal the pull-out. "This could fuel the already intense public debate going on about the mission in Nato member countries," Jan Koehler, an analyst at Berlin's Free University, said in an interview. "It highlights the fundamental problems that countries have with this mission - that there's no guarantee of success and that it has become increasingly difficult."
But, he added, a Dutch withdrawal was unlikely to have a direct knock-on effect on other countries. Some of the United States' main allies have already made clear they intend to pull out as soon as possible, and provided fewer additional troops than requested to accompany a US increase of 30,000. The Canadians are due to withdraw from Kandahar province by the end of 2011. Germany, asked to supply an additional 2,500 soldiers, is only increasing its troop numbers by up to 850 to just over 5,000, and said last month it wanted to start reducing its contingent next year.
In Britain, the rising death toll has raised public doubts about the mission. The prime minister, Gordon Brown, facing an election in the coming months, has capped the troop increase at 500. More than 100 British troops were killed in 2009 alone, and 263 have died since the operation began in 2001. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said in January that France, which has more than 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, "will not send another single soldier".
Responding to fears about the unity of the alliance, Nato dismissed speculation yesterday that a Dutch withdrawal would influence other governments. "We shouldn't assume that because one country has taken a decision, others will necessarily follow. Each country has its own political situation," Nato's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwell, told the BBC. "The public mood is of course sceptical in most of the contributing countries; in a sense it's right that people are asking us some very difficult questions. We've been here a long time, security in particular has deteriorated over the last few years, governance has flatlined and it's only really in the economic development area that we've seen significant and consistent improvements."
Germans, who have the third-biggest force in Afghanistan behind the United States and Britain, are as opposed to the Afghanistan mission as the Dutch are. German troops are mainly stationed in the north of Afghanistan and Berlin has steadfastly resisted calls by Nato allies to join the heavy fighting in the south. Germany initially saw its troops mainly as a reconstruction force and has been alarmed by increasing Taliban attacks over the past two years as the counterinsurgency has spread to the north.
A survey at the end of January showed that 76 per cent of Germans do not believe the mission in Afghanistan will succeed, and two-thirds are against the government's decision to send extra troops. The opposition is not surprising given the nation's strong pacifist streak, a legacy of its Nazi past. But the mission has become even more controversial since an air strike ordered by a German commander on two hijacked fuel trucks in Kunduz killed scores of civilians in September. The affair embarrassed the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel and forced a cabinet minister and two senior military officials to resign. It is now the subject of a parliamentary inquiry. Nevertheless, the troop increase is widely expected to get the necessary backing of parliament in a vote this Friday.
Analysts said the outcome of Nato's current "Operation Moshtarak", a major offensive against the Taliban in the Marjah and Nad Ali districts of Helmand, was likely to have a bigger effect on Nato's morale than a Dutch troop withdrawal. "Nato has had a relatively good week. This new campaign against a Taliban stronghold in the province of Helmand seems to have gone rather well and a couple of very important Taliban commanders have been captured," said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. "This was very necessary because Nato has otherwise been having a very bad one and a half years.
"Much depends on whether the so-called surge in Afghanistan continues to go reasonably well, and there are lots of reasons why it could still go badly. The European governments have understood that their political credibility and Nato's credibility is on the line here." firstname.lastname@example.org