Dutch try different strategy in Afghanistan

The Baltimore Sun

QALA-E-SURKH, Afghanistan -- The Dutch infantrymen stood on a ridge near the Baluchi valley, an area in south-central Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban and tribes opposed to the central government.

Whenever they push farther, the soldiers said, they swiftly come under fire from rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. "The whole valley is pretty much hostile," said a machine gunner.

But rather than advancing for reconnaissance or to attack, the Dutch soldiers pulled back to a safer village. "We're not here to fight the Taliban," said the Dutch commander, Col. Hans van Griensven, at a recent staff meeting. "We're here to make the Taliban irrelevant."

Thousands of fresh Western troops have flowed into Afghanistan since last year, seeking to counter the resurgent Taliban before an expected spring offensive. Many U.S. units have been conducting sweeps and raids.

But here in Uruzgan province, where the Taliban operate openly, a Dutch-led task force has mostly shunned combat. Its counterinsurgency tactics emphasize efforts to improve Afghan living conditions and self-governance, rather than hunting the Taliban's fighters. Bloodshed is out. Reconstruction, mentoring and diplomacy are in.

U.S. military officials have expressed unease about the Dutch method, warning that if the Taliban are not kept under military pressure in Uruzgan, they will use the province as a haven and project their insurgency into neighboring provinces.

The Dutch counter that construction projects and consistent political and social support will lure the population from the Taliban, allowing the central and provincial governments to expand their authority over the long term.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency tactics have long been subjects of intensive tinkering and debate, as military and police forces from different nations, and even different units within nations, have chosen conflicting approaches.

The Dutch-led force of about 2,000 soldiers has adopted what counterinsurgency theorists call the "oil spot" approach. Under this tactic, it concentrates efforts in less hostile areas, especially a basin around Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital, which overlaps an economic development zone designated by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

The central idea is that if foreign military forces show restraint and respect, and help the local government to govern, then these areas will expand, slowly but persistently, like an oil stain across a shirt. As they grow, the theory says, the Taliban's standing will decline.

To date, the Dutch, aided by U.S. soldiers and contractors who train Afghan police and soldiers, have helped Afghan units to coordinate security and build police posts. Simultaneously, they have sent teams of specialists and Australian engineers to choose development projects and plan them with village leaders.

They have built or repaired schools, mosques, police garrisons, courtrooms and a hospital inside the more secure areas. A bridge and a police training center are under construction or in design. They also have opened a trade school that teaches Afghan laborers basic job skills, including carpentry and generator repair.

To encourage expansion of the government's influence, the Dutch infantry conducts patrols around the secure zones, and reconstruction teams try to identify future projects and allies who can extend the ring of influence.

"Inside the inner ring, we try to do a lot of long-lasting development projects," said Lt. Col. Gert-Jan Kooij, the task force's operations officer. "It's not like it is 100 percent safe there. It never is. But it's permissive at least. And by showing that we have projects in the permissive areas, we hope the people in other areas will see that it gets better when they work with their government."

Such counterinsurgency tactics are not new; they are only back in vogue, with a new generation of officers drawing lessons from past military operations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo, Vietnam and elsewhere.

Similar tactics have reappeared in U.S. units in Iraq, as both the Army and the Marine Corps have been rewriting doctrine along the same lines.

But the Dutch have embraced the theory more fully than most, to the point that most Dutch units now take extraordinary steps to avoid military escalation and risks of damage to property or harm to civilians. (When armored vehicles damaged a grove of mulberry trees, a captain came by the next day to negotiate a compensation payment for the farmers.)

When Dutch units patrol, they usually avoid known hostile zones, which include expansive patches of Uruzgan province. When a Dutch unit is attacked, it typically withdraws from enemy range. In areas where the Taliban are less prevalent, soldiers do not wear helmets, which the Dutch say makes them more approachable.

Dutch commanders say they also draw from their army's experiences in southern Iraq from 2003 through 2005, where similar tactics were used. They say their units had better relations with Iraqis, and faced less fighting, than did U.S. units. Civilian deaths and property damage caused by U.S. tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan, they said, have hardened villagers' attitudes, which helps the insurgents with recruiting, intelligence and protection.

Dutch officers say the approach has yielded promising results here. Sometimes villagers have warned them of ambushes or roadside bombs, and in several villages the Dutch are rarely attacked. Since the task force began operations last August, it has not suffered a combat fatality. Van Griensven also said the task force had developed underground contacts in Taliban-controlled regions.

"If you look at what we have done in eight months, I am optimistic," he said. "We have a good start with the basics."

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