Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dutch in Afstan: "The flower-strewers partly vindicated"

Interesting, but I've often found that pieces in The Economist should be taken with several grains of salt:
Afghanistan's Uruzgan province
The Dutch model

AMID the gloom of recent assessments of the progress of its war in Afghanistan, NATO has seen a flicker of light in an unexpected province: Uruzgan. This 8,000 square-mile (20,000 square-kilometre) tract of the starkly beautiful Afghan central highlands is fast becoming its star performer. If the optimism is justified, it would be a vindication for the Netherlands, which took control of Uruzgan in 2006, deploying 2,000 soldiers, and has faced sniping from NATO’s bigger powers ever since.

Uruzgan was the birthplace of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and is dominated by the conservative ethnic Pushtuns from whom the Taliban draw their strength. Yet the Dutch forces lost only six soldiers killed in 2008, while the British in neighbouring Helmand lost 51 dead and Canadian forces in Kandahar lost 32 soldiers. Critics claim the Dutch are good at being a “best friend” to local people, but less convincing as a “worst enemy” to the Taliban: “flower-strewers”. Dutch commanders put it differently. Brigadier-General Tom Middendorp, the Dutch commander, denies his soldiers avoid combat. They have been in more than 1,000 firefights since 2006 [some action here and here]. But Dutch priorities are to engage local people and help them with development.

Dutch army commanders have pursued an “ink-spot” approach, in which they focus on controlling the three central districts where 70% of the 627,000 population is concentrated. Other areas have been ceded, they say, until they can win popular support by demonstrating progress in the centre. General Middendorp points to recent success in the Baluchi Valley as proof that a “population-based” approach is bearing fruit. Dutch forces fought a long battle in the valley in late 2007, built patrol bases at either end of it and then stood back for a year, content to study the complex dynamics of the area from afar.

They were then able in late 2008 to occupy the whole valley without serious opposition. Grudgingly, local people concede there has been some improvement. Haji Zal, a tribal elder in Tirin Khot, the provincial capital, points to better security and new roads, and judges things “10%” better than a year ago. Other locals say much of the progress is due to the more robust Australian and American special forces who operate alongside the Dutch [emphasis added]: “The only time the Dutch are fighting is when they are in bed and dreaming,” sniffs one local police commander. But with fewer fights come fewer local civilian casualties and, suggests Thomas Rutting, an analyst in Kabul, less local hostility to the Dutch.

Afghanistan, however, has a history of turning success stories into horror movies. Khost province, for example, used to be held up by American commanders as a model, until apparently lasting progress crumbled last summer. Similarly, Dutch achievements will be tested by the summer spike in insurgent violence [emphasis added]. The Afghan army’s commander in Uruzgan, General Abdul Hamid, says the Taliban use remote districts of Uruzgan as training areas. So they have a reason to “live and let live” for now. He estimates local insurgent numbers at around 1,700...

For the Dutch, success in Uruzgan may help to lay the ghost of Srebrenica, where their peacekeepers stood by in 1995 during a massacre. But they are in a hurry to go—by 2010, according to the Dutch government. And despite progress in building Afghanistan’s fledgling armed forces, it is unclear who will replace them.

But note this, from mid-January:
Renewed Dutch mission to Afghanistan was always an option

Dutch ministers are creating confusion with their recent conflicting statements about participation in new military missions to Afghanistan. Yet government statements have always left the option open to remain in Afghanistan. There are currently Dutch F16 fighters stationed in Kandahar and Dutch officers active at the command centre in Kabul, for a total of about 350 troops.

The official government letter at the end of 2007 announcing the extension of the Dutch mission states literally that the Netherlands “will in any event end its leading military responsibility in Uruzgan as of August 1, 2010.” From that date the withdrawal of the Dutch troops “will take place as quickly as possible, so that this is completed as of December 1, 2010.” Yet during the parliamentary debate of December 2007, it was discussed whether departure from Uruzgan also meant a full pullout from Afghanistan.

Minister Verhagen said at the time: “I am not saying here that the Netherlands is not willing to take part in Nato missions after August 2010.” In other words, the government has from very beginning left open the possibility of remaining active elsewhere in Afghanistan after its departure from Uruzgan. Incidentally that is already the case now, on a limited scale.

The term ‘withdraw’ can be broadly interpreted, as evidenced in recent days. Is the Netherlands leaving Uruzgan in just under two years, or not? This issue was once again clouded after statements this weekend by the Dutch minister of foreign affairs Maxime Verhagen in the daily De Telegraaf ["The Netherlands foreign minister is quoted as saying that he cannot rule out Dutch troops remaining active in Afghanistan past the end of their current Nato mission in 2010. Maxime Verhagen is quoted in the Sunday edition of De Telegraaf newspaper saying no decision has yet been made."]...
Something for Canadians to chew on; if not a full battle group, then...

And think about this:
...The core fighting element of the [Royal Netherlands] army is divided into three separate brigades: two mechanised brigades and one airborne brigade. The number of full time professional personnel is 25,000. Compulsory military service has not been abolished but has been suspended...
That's from a population half the size of Canada's. The Canadian Army now has 22,000 regulars.


Blogger said...

Interesting - in another piece earlier this week:
there's actually a bit more detail on why Uruzgan may be doing better:
"....In a briefing with commanders, the general keeps asking why the Dutch and Australians in Uruzgan are doing better than the British in Helmand and the Canadians in Kandahar. What is the secret to their success, and can it be exported? Nobody has a clear answer. Perhaps Uruzgan is shielded by the Brits and Canadians further south. Perhaps the Dutch have found a better model for economic development. Everybody agrees, though, that part of the answer lies in the work done by the special forces...."
Funny how a shorter piece may offer a bit more context and perspective, eh?

6:48 p.m., March 12, 2009  
Blogger Dave in Pa. said...

"...Everybody agrees, though, that part of the answer lies in the work done by the special forces...."

I sure don't want to deprecate the Dutch Army -they're actually there fighting, not sitting on their arses in comparatively safe sectors, like certain other "allies". But I'd think the part of the answer that is the Aussie SAS and US Spec. Forces is a pretty big part.

12:01 p.m., March 13, 2009  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Yeah, gents, but it's not like special operations types aren't working in Kandahar. I suspect geography and the insurgents' focus is more of a contributing factor in Uruzgan's relative progress than anything else.

But like everyone, I'm just guessing.

12:05 p.m., March 13, 2009  
Blogger Dave in Pa. said...

I have a PS to my above remark. I'm getting older and have "Colander Brain Memory Syndrome", so forgive me if this has been covered.

Australian SAS Trooper Mark Donaldson was recently awarded the VC for his gallantry in Af-stan. Quite a story! His VC is the first Aussie award of the VC since Vietnam. I'd be proud to buy that lad a beer anytime!

12:07 p.m., March 13, 2009  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

The Aussies give news about what their special forces do--yet the Canadian government is afraid to make anything public about what ours are doing. Guess they don't want to mention such things as "targeted killings" to the squeamish Canadian public.


1:45 p.m., March 13, 2009  

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