updated 2/20/2010 10:55:24 AM ET 2010-02-20T15:55:24

The Dutch coalition government collapsed Saturday over irreconcilable differences on whether to extend the Netherlands' military mission in Afghanistan, leaving the future of its 1,600 soldiers fighting there uncertain. An early election is now expected.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced that the second largest party in his three-party alliance is quitting, in a breakdown of trust in what had always been an uneasy partnership.

"Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together. There is no road along which this cabinet can go further," Balkenende said.

The Dutch debate comes as opinion polls in many troop-providing European countries indicate growing public opposition to sending more soldiers to Afghanistan amid a global financial crisis and shrinking defense budgets.

Any Dutch withdrawal would be a worrying sign for NATO, which has struggled to raise the 10,000 additional troops that its top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has demanded to accompany the 30,000 American reinforcements being deployed there.

Balkenende made no mention of elections as he spoke to reporters after a 16-hour Cabinet meeting in The Hague that ended close to dawn. However, the resignation of the Labor Party — which has demanded the country stick to a scheduled withdrawal from southern Afghanistan — leaves his government with just 47 seats in the 150-member parliament.

With no viable prospects for other coalitions, an early election is expected. By law it must be held within 83 days and by custom it is on a Wednesday, so the vote is likely May 11.

Balkenende, 53, said his center-right Christian Democratic Alliance would continue in office with the small Christian Union. His minority cabinet would continue as a caretaker government until a new coalition is formed, which could take many months of political bargaining following an election.

Disagreement over Afghanistan
Dutch soldiers have been deployed since 2006 in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan on a two-year stint that was extended until next August. Balkenende's party wanted to keep a trimmed-down military presence in the restive province, where 21 Dutch soldiers have been killed, but Labor was adamant that the Dutch troops leave Uruzgan as scheduled.

"A plan was agreed to when our soldiers went to Afghanistan," said Labor Party leader Wouter Bos. "Our partners in the government didn't want to stick to that plan, and on the basis of their refusal, we have decided to resign."

The Dutch government split came after weeks of tension between Balkenende and Bos, the finance minister, mainly over Afghanistan and the government's earlier political support for the war in Iraq.

Balkenende's allies argued that a pullout from Afghanistan would damage the Netherlands' reputation as a nation that carries more than its weight in international peacekeeping missions, and could encourage other wavering countries to also withdraw.

"The future of the mission of our soldiers in Afghanistan will now be in the hands of the new Cabinet," said Deputy Defense Minister Jack de Vries.

NATO recently sent a letter to the Dutch government asking if it would consider staying longer.

Preparing for elections
In Brussels, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said NATO would not specifically comment on the internal political debates in member countries.

"(But) Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen continues to believe that the best way forward would be a new smaller Dutch mission, including a provincial reconstruction team in Uruzgan to consolidate the success that the Dutch have had and to transition to Afghan lead," Appathurai said.

He said whatever happened, the Afghan people should know that NATO will "continue to provide support to them as long as necessary."

Andre Rouvoet, leader of Christian Union party, said Queen Beatrix, Holland's ceremonial head of state, will formally accept the resignations of the Labor ministers and "ask the remaining ministers to prepare for elections." First, however, she must return from her skiing holiday in Austria.

Opinion polls suggest the Afghan war is deeply unpopular in the Netherlands. Labor, which has been dropping in the polls, appeared determined to take a stand with next month's local elections in mind.

An election in the next few months could see a further boost for extreme anti-immigrant populist Geert Wilders, whose ranking in the polls rivals Balkenende's.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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