Nato was left in fear of further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan yesterday after the Dutch Prime Minister conceded that he could not prevent his forces being pulled out this year after the collapse of the Government in The Hague. Jan Peter Balkenende lost the argument over extending the deployment at a 16-hour Cabinet session, in the first big reversal for the recently appointed Nato leader, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had publicly requested a continued Dutch commitment. Our task as the lead nation [in Uruzgan province] ends in August, Mr Balkenende said. After a three-month draw-down, the Dutch will be completely out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. There are concerns that other countries where public opinion is turning against the Afghan campaign could follow, notably Canada, which has had the biggest proportional casualty rate and is committed to withdrawing its 2,800 troops by the end of next year. Another concern is the continued presence of 1,000 Australian troops. The Canberra Government has repeatedly refused to take over the lead role in Uruzgan if Holland leaves, demanding that a big Nato power provide the main share of troop numbers. Just as important is the impression that European countries are struggling to find their share of the 10,000 extra troops requested by US General Stanley McChrystal to join 30,000 extra US troops in Afghanistan, with France ruling out more forces and a fierce debate in Germany. The Times understands that the Dutch forces in Uruzgan will be replaced by US troops, diverting them from the surge operation against the Taleban. Asadullah Hamdam, governor of Uruzgan, said that peace and reconstruction efforts would suffer, telling the BBC that the Dutch played a key role in building roads, training Afghan police and providing security for civilians. If they withdraw and leave these projects incomplete, they will leave a big vacuum, he said. A British security source said: This is a big setback because the Dutch are very highly rated. It is also a psychological blow, because as soon as one country leaves it starts making the public in other countries worried. Although the Dutch endured some sniping from bigger Nato powers about their perceived lack of aggression after they deployed to Uruzgan in 2006, their population centric strategy was a precursor of The McChrystal Doctrine adopted by British and American forces. Mr Balkenende faces a general election in May after his main coalition partners, PvdA, the Labour party, walked out rather than break a promise to withdraw the 1,950 Dutch troops this year. Wouter Bos, the Labour leader, said: A plan was agreed to when our soldiers went to Afghanistan. Our partners in the government did not want to stick to that plan, and on the basis of their refusal we have decided to resign. Mr Balkenendes Christian Democrats and Labour are forecast to lose seats in the 150-member parliament. The two big gainers are forecast to be the ultra-liberals D66 and the right-wing Party of Freedom of the anti-Islamist MP Geert Wilders. Both oppose the Afghan mission. A recent poll put support for keeping Dutch troops in Uruzgan at 35 per cent compared with 58 per cent for withdrawal, after 21 Dutch deaths. The Dutch mission in Afghanistan was due to end in 2008, but the Government extended it until August 2010 a decision made while the head of Nato was Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former Dutch defence minister. In October Mr Rasmussen said: I would regret a Dutch withdrawal. We are at a critical juncture, where there should be no doubt about our firm commitment. Any doubts will simply play into the hands of those who want us to fail. This month he issued a letter to The Hague requesting that Dutch troops stay for another year in a reduced training role, a gesture that may have been designed to be helpful by ending their frontline role, but which ended up dividing the Cabinet. (The Times)