AMSTERDAM – A furious dispute over the war in Afghanistan brought down the Dutch government Saturday, bitterly divided on whether its forces should stay or go as NATO deepens its engagement against the Taliban.

After a contentious 16-hour Cabinet meeting, a key partner walked out of Jan Peter Balkenende’s coalition, accusing the prime minister of reneging on a pledge to withdraw 1,600 troops this year from Uruzgan province, where 21 Dutchmen already have died.

The collapse of the center-right government was the result of discontent with policies that made the Netherlands a loyal ally of the United States in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq, and was a sign of the difficulty President Obama faces in maintaining the international contingent in the Afghan battlefield at full strength.

Canada has said it intends to withdraw its entire 2,800-strong force from Afghanistan by the end of 2011. The Canadian contingent, the third-largest after the U.S. and Britain, serves together with the Dutch in Uruzgan.

The allies account for roughly half the 87,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Balkenende announced before dawn that the marathon Cabinet session had failed to bridge differences with the Labor Party, which rejected a request by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to extend the mission of Dutch forces deployed in Uruzgan since 2006.

Elections were expected in May.

Balkenende will remain in office as head of a minority government until a new coalition is formed — which could take months after the election, given the fractious state of Dutch politics.


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