The Dutch parliament decided Thursday to send up to 1,700 troops to Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led reconstruction mission, after months of intense pressure from U.S. and NATO officials.NATO authorities considered the Dutch vote crucial to the 6,000-member force the alliance plans to send this summer to the troubled southern provinces of Afghanistan where Taliban insurgents remain active. The United States is depending on the NATO effort to allow it to begin reducing some of its troops in the country.
But many Dutch lawmakers said they were concerned that the troops would be drawn into combat with Taliban forces, jeopardizing the ability to win the support of local Afghans for its intended assignment of building roads and schools, digging wells and other projects in the impoverished, isolated Uruzgan province.
"It's time for us to show some guts," Hans van Baalen, a member of the free-market VVD, the country's third-largest party, told the 150-member parliament. "Fighting terrorism is in the Netherlands' interest and in the interest of Afghanistan."
No vote was held specifically to send the troops, but a motion against sending the forces was defeated 127 to 23. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said he expected to confirm the deployment with his coalition cabinet Friday.
"I have seen that there is very broad support in parliament, so the mission can go ahead," he said at the debate's conclusion. The government is likely to formally announce the troop deployment after the cabinet meeting, officials said.
Dutch officials have debated it for months. As Thursday's vote neared, a parade of high-level foreign officials visited The Hague to press legislators and cabinet members to support the operation.
This week, visitors included U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the top NATO military officer, as well as Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Defense Minister Rahim Wardak. U.S. officials also have been lobbying behind the scenes.
The coalition government's smallest member, the D66 party, was one of the most vocal opponents of the deployment. "Is this, in fact, not simply a terrorism-fighting mission disguised as a reconstruction effort, and thus limited in its ability to act?" the party said in an open letter to parliament, reports Washington Post.