General slams critics of 'Dutch model' in Afghanistan

21st January 2010, Comments 0 comments

Brigadier General Marc van Uhm has a blunt response for critics who say Dutch troops have avoided fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province.

Tirin Kot--"This is bullshit," he told AFP in an exclusive interview at "Kamp Holland" in the provincial capital Tirin Kot, as his government debates pulling out of Afghanistan at the end of July.

Any country that takes over -- and other international forces in Afghanistan -- would do well to emulate the Dutch emphasis on winning hearts and minds over killing insurgents, Van Uhm said.

His comments come against the background of a build-up of forces that will lift US and NATO troop levels to over 150,000 by the middle of the year -- nearly nine years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban.

The hardline Islamists have staged a comeback, mounting an increasingly aggressive and deadly insurgency against President Hamid Karzai's government and international forces.

"We did fight the Taliban, we have lost 21 soldiers here, we have many wounded," said Van Uhm, the brother of Dutch military chief Peter van Uhm, whose son was killed by a roadside bomb in Uruzgan in 2008.

He said the nature of the fighting since the Dutch took the lead role in the southern province in 2006 had changed as the Taliban "learned that when you are engaging my troops, you will not win".

They now attacked indirectly, through roadside bombs and suicide bombers, across the province, which is about the size of the Netherlands, with a population of about 360,000.

"We do go out, we go out often, we fight against them and their way of doing their fight has changed," Marc van Uhm, the commander of Dutch forces in the province, said.

The insulting charge of avoiding the fight has been made by critics of the so-called "Dutch model," which stresses the "three Ds" of defence, development and diplomacy.

But the tactics -- which Van Uhm said he would rather describe as the "Uruzgan model" because other foreign forces including the Australians were involved -- have mostly won international respect.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is itself adopting the Uruzgan scheme, the general said.

"The strategy now is not about killing Taliban anymore, it's about protecting the people and we protect the people with a three-D integrated approach."

The Dutch civil representative in Task Force Uruzgan, Michel Rentenaar, who was present at the interview, played down the Dutch role, saying other nations were working along similar lines, though he added: "We may be a little ahead of the curve."

"Let's face it, anybody who can read a history book knows we are not going to win this militarily only.

"If you can take away the grip the Taliban has on the population by giving people a little bit of hope for the future by bringing some development, then you've probably won the fight without a shot."

The general said most fighters grouped under the name Taliban were "young guys who don't have a job and the Taliban pays them to fight for them.

"They are not ideological, they are just fighting us to get money. If we were able to provide them jobs, enable them to make a living another way, they don't have to fight."

Reflecting a similar view, Karzai's office said Sunday the president would announce a new plan to make peace with insurgents, offering them economic incentives to stop fighting.

Karzai intended to announce the plan before a conference with Afghanistan's international backers in London on January 28, his spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters.

Rentenaar, a veteran diplomat who has served in several hotspots including Iraq, said the Taliban had already lost their grip in some areas where troops had secured zones and pushed them to the outskirts.

This is known as an "ink spot" approach, in which key areas are secured first and development projects put in place after negotiations with local leaders.

The "ink spots" are then linked to create one large Taliban-free zone.

Neither the general nor Rentenaar would comment directly on the political wrangling in The Hague over the future of Dutch troops in Afghanistan.

Rentenaar said that while the Dutch government had announced it would no longer be the lead nation in Uruzgan as of August 1, it was still in the process of deciding what form, if any, its involvement would take.

"All options are still on the table. It is very clear that the Netherlands government has said it has multi-annual commitments to development in Uruzgan and so we are not leaving in that sense," he said.

The Netherlands has a total of 2,100 troops in Afghanistan, with 1,500 in Uruzgan.

NATO and the United States have 113,000 troops in the country, with another 40,000 being deployed over the course of this year.

AFP/ Lawrence Bartlett/ Expatica

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