Dutch government could fall over Afghanistan

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The Dutch cabinet yesterday agreed to let MPs vote on a plan to send 1,400 soldiers to Afghanistan after weeks of haggling that have threatened the county's government.

The move was welcomed at Nato, which is responsible for the peacekeeping operation, but Dutch MPs warned they could still withhold support from the plan and provoke a fresh crisis.

In the Netherlands, the row has evoked painful memories of 1995, when lightly armed Dutch UN peacekeepers failed to prevent the massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia.

Nato and EU officials have warned that their credibility is at stake and that if the Dutch refuse to deploy, Washington will conclude that most European nations are unwilling to tackle difficult missions. The stakes are particularly high for Nato since its secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, is Dutch, and has said he expects the mission to go ahead.

The Dutch parliament will start debating the issue in the next two weeks, and a vote against or a slim majority in favour would make it politically impossible for the centre-right coalition government to continue.

Two cabinet ministers from the small liberal D66 party accepted yesterday's decision, although their party opposes the deployment. But Lousewies van der Laan, deputy leader of the D66, warned: "There is absolutely no indication with this decision that there is now a parliamentary majority."

Last month, the Nato alliance said it planned to send an additional 6,000 soldiers into Afghanistan's southern provinces this year to help President Hamid Karzai's government expand control in the country. The Netherlands already has 1,200 soldiers in Afghanistan in two missions.

The Dutch government has satisfied some critics by ensuring that any prisoners taken by its Nato force will not face the death penalty or be sent to Guantanamo Bay. But opponents of the deployment say the south is not yet stable enough for a peacekeeping exercise and the mission is therefore flawed. They fear that, as America seeks to reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan, Dutch peacekeepers will get embroiled in the separate, US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, which is hunting down Taliban fighters.

Ms van der Laan said: "One lesson of Srebrenica is not to take decisions too quickly without studying the rules of engagement. The question here is: can a reconstruction mission be carried out successfully in a war zone? What we must avoid is fighting an American war under a Nato flag."