Winning the Afghan war, Dutch style

Winning the Afghan war, Dutch style

31st January 2010, Comments 0 comments

In a remote river valley surrounded by jagged mountain ranges stands a modest white building seen by some strategists as a symbol of how to win the war in Afghanistan.

Mirwais base--The "White Compound" in Ali Shirzai, a mud-walled town in one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces, Uruzgan, epitomises the "Dutch model" -- a so-called three-D approach combining defence, diplomacy and development.

The relative success of the system in Uruzgan is receiving close attention from the United States and other coalition partners as a new surge is set to take foreign troop numbers to more than 150,000 by mid-year.

The White Compound was the headquarters of the local administration for the Chora district until Taliban insurgents staged an offensive in the area in June 2007, capturing several Afghan police posts.

Dutch troops, who took over as lead nation in Uruzgan from the United States in 2006, engaged the insurgents along with Afghan army troops and police and the "Battle of Chora" began, ending a few days later with dozens killed.

The Dutch then based themselves in the White Compound, symbolically ruling the district as they drove the Taliban out of the valley.

Earlier this month, the refurbished building -- with a lick of new white paint to distinguish it from the rest of the ochre-hued town -- was ceremoniously handed back to the local Afghan administration.

In this 21 January 2010 photograph, Dutch battle group platoon commander Lieutenant Rik (L) speaks with an Afghan village elder during a patrol in Chora valley in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province

"The White Compound, I think, is a very good example of the three-D approach," says The Hague's chief civilian representative to Uruzgan, Michel Rentenaar.

"There was a battle, then the military did what it does best -- create security and give people the feeling there is a different climate and that allows civilians to reconstruct things."

The Dutch, along with Australian allies, remain in the area, but a discreet kilometre (half a mile) or so away in a camp behind blast-proof walls.

"In the last two years the area has changed from hostile, filled with insurgents, to being stable," air assault company commander Captain Jeroen told AFP, using his first name only, according to standard Dutch military procedure.

"The local nationals appear to be quite happy with the presence of coalition forces," particularly because they have been carrying out joint patrols with the Afghan army, police and local government, he said.

The strategy is in line with US President Barack Obama's plan to boost troop numbers over the short term before starting to gradually withdraw and hand over increasing responsibility to the Afghans themselves.

Nine years after a US-led coalition ousted the Islamist Taliban government, the need for a new approach has been driven by an increasingly deadly insurgency with record numbers of soldiers and civilians killed last year.

The commander of the Dutch forces in Uruzgan, Brigadier General Marc van Uhm, believes the US and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are adopting the approach in Uruzgan.

"There can be no development without security, but no security without development," he told AFP in an interview at his headquarters in the provincial capital Tarin Kowt, south of Forward Operating Base Mirwais.

Roadside bombs remain a constant threat in the area surrounding the outpost: eight Afghan army soldiers and three Afghan police were killed in separate attacks on the same day recently.

Afghan shepherds herd their sheep as Dutch soldiers of Charlie Air assault patrol in Chora valley in southern Uruzgan province

And the view from the main watchtower at the camp shows the limits of the secure area: a sweeping panorama across the wintry Dorshan river valley to the surrounding stark mountain ranges, some dusted with snow.

Beyond the mountains is no-man's land, with the notorious Baluchi Valley to the west, which Captain Jeroen describes as being carpeted with roadside bombs.

On a foot patrol through Ali Shirzai, soldiers in battle-gear and bearded men in flowing robes are quietly watchful as the troops patrol through the bazaar, a network of lanes lined by small shops set in endless mud walls.

"It's like walking through the Old Testament," one American general is said to have remarked during a visit to Uruzgan.

Ninety-percent of Uruzgan's population cannot read or write, and live much as their ancestors did centuries ago.

Close up, the exchange between a soldier, an interpreter and a trader may appear to be a traditional bargaining session. But a broader view shows both ends of the street blocked by troops.

And the sudden revving of an engine brings a rifle to shoulder in an instant, until the driver takes his foot off the accelerator and stays put.

One trader tells AFP through the military interpreter: "Yes, we are happy with the soldiers who are working to bring peace in our country."

But, he adds, the military patrols disturb life in the narrow streets of the bazaar and block the traffic.

As the sun rises higher above the mountain peaks and the bazaar becomes busier -- with children playing and donkeys carrying loads of firewood and the occasional, rare, woman -- the patrol makes its way back behind the blast-proof walls of the base.

But while their job of ensuring security -- defence -- might be done for the moment, a provincial reconstruction team also operates from the base, working on the other two Ds -- diplomacy and development.

Dutch soldiers of Charlie Air assault company check for unexploded IEDs (improvised explosive devices) during a patrol in Chora valley in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province (January 2010)

The efforts of such teams around the province are impressive, statistically at least: Since the Dutch took over in 2006, 39 schools have been built and another 56 are under construction.

Nearly 60,000 children are in school, including more than 4,000 girls, compared to a total of just 14,000 three years ago.

A small hospital in Tarin Kowt has been transformed into a provincial centre with a specialist woman's ward and 147 basic health posts have been established throughout the province.

"Fight where needed, and build where possible," says General van Uhm.

AFP/ Lawrence Bartlett/ Expatica

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