Dutch mull longer Afghanistan stay at NATO request

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch government will look at options to extend its military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2010, the Dutch Defense Ministry said on Tuesday, as NATO increases efforts to contain the Taliban insurgency.

The Netherlands had initially decided to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2010, but had left the door open in recent months to the possibility of a smaller-scale mission despite political division over the prospect.

“At NATO’s request the cabinet will investigate the possibilities and desirability of a longer stay in Afghanistan,” said a spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

Leaving Afghanistan was still an option, the spokesman said, adding the cabinet would aim to take a decision in the “short term.”

“NATO has requested for a smaller and temporary contribution to the ISAF force, specifically targeted to training Afghan security troops and handing over responsibilities to Afghan authorities,” he said.

United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday NATO allies could make up a shortfall of trainers by reshuffling rather than expanding their troop commitments.

The current Dutch mission, which started in 2006 and was extended in 2008, was scheduled to end in August with the last of the troops leaving in December.

Dutch troops, of which 21 have died during the mission, are mainly stationed in the Afghan province of Uruzgan and talk about a possible extension of the mission had divided the country’s coalition government parties.

A possible extension could be in Uruzgan or elsewhere, said the spokesman. Details about how long a possible extension could be or how many troops it would involve remained to be looked at.

The decision comes at a difficult time for the Dutch cabinet. Last month it averted a crisis after a report was published challenging the legal grounds for Dutch political support for the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, of the Christian Democrat CDA, had said the Netherlands would be a NATO outsider if it did not agree to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, but he had also said the current size of the mission could not be maintained beyond 2010.

Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos of the Labour PvdA said late last year, however, that the government’s plan to end the mission in August 2010 and to gradually withdraw the troops and material thereafter was “clear.”

Reporting by Gilbert Kreijger; Editing by Charles Dick