A dozen Dutch soldiers emerge from their belching armored carriers, scan the area for danger and begin setting up checkpoints outside the Sar Sheykhil police station. Today’s mission: Show the flag and help train police in securing a perimeter and handcuffing suspects.
Afghan policeman Najibullah, who is 18 but looks 14, tries his hand at searching cars and patting down pedestrians. The young man, who goes by one name, has been a cop for only two months. He lacks a gun, proper shoes and confidence, and his technique needs work, as people, donkeys and loaded motorcycles slip by with little scrutiny.
“Let’s just say my adrenaline is a bit high,” said 2nd Lt. Luc Konings, the Dutch patrol leader. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we could trust everyone in this country. We try and uphold normal Afghan life while maintaining security.”
In recent months, since the appointment of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as the top commander here, the new mantra for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has become: more development work, more civilian protection, less overarching focus on fighting.
This is nothing new for the Dutch, who are credited with using less of a tough-guy approach here in Oruzgan province. The strategy, which some analysts said was influenced by the lessons learned from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which Serbs killed up to 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims in an area under the supervision of Dutch United Nations peacekeeping troops, offers lessons for the U.S. at a time when it’s debating whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.
The Netherlands is small in size, but with 2,160 troops it is the seventh-largest contributor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Afghan effort. The Dutch soldiers came in 2006 to Oruzgan, a strategically important province north of troubled Helmand and Kandahar that is a power base for both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Dutch strategy, hardly rocket science but implemented earlier and more successfully than those of many allies, involved focusing resources on three “ink spot” population centers -- Deh Rawood, Tarin Kowt and Chora -- then gradually expanding until the spots merge.
Dutch planners said they’ve concentrated on community development nearly as much as military security and have worked to ensure that complex tribal, political and governmental interests had a stake in building schools and other civilian projects. This, they hoped, would encourage residents to protect the structures against Taliban attacks, even if the process required far more time and effort than paying foreign contractors to throw up a showcase project.
They also sought to engage moderates and Taliban sympathizers long before the U.S. considered talking to its adversaries, trying to “turn” borderline radicals and build up community goodwill.
In a July news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, President Obama praised the approach, which reserved the use of force to cases in which Dutch troops were attacked. “The Dutch military has been one of the most outstanding militaries there, has shown extraordinary not only military capacity, but also insight into the local culture and the local politics,” the president said.
It’s difficult to quantify the progress in Oruzgan since 2006, given a lack of consistent benchmarks, Dutch military officials said. However, they said, the “ink spots” have expanded; Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital, is safer; there’s more commercial activity; and a growing number of civic groups are working in the province.
In a photo op for voters back home, Dutch marines recently patrolled Tarin Kowt on bicycles. “It is now safe enough to do that,” said a Dutch Defense Ministry press release.
Social indicators have also improved, although they’re still rather dismal. The province of 360,000 people has seen a fivefold increase in the number doctors since 2001, to 31 from six.
“I wouldn’t say we’re on a roll,” said Brig. Gen. Marc van Uhm. “But we’re pushing the insurgents out. Seventy-five percent of the population now lives in protected areas.”
“It’s important to show you’re not just out fighting Taliban,” said Civilian Representative Michel Rentenaar, “but that you’re here to stay and invest in the future.”
The Dutch record is not without critics. Persuading ordinary Afghans -- scarred by entrenched poverty, decades of civil war and an ever-present Taliban threat -- to support the Dutch and other NATO allies against the militants is a tough sell when Western voters are demanding quick results and their leaders debating exit strategies, some said.
“It’s hard to measure success after a couple of two-year stints,” said Dick Leurdijk, an analyst with the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
Mohammad Naim, 33, a stonemason, sits with his five children outside his mud house. Security in Tarin Kowt has improved since the Dutch arrived, he said. But reports that they’ll leave next year are disconcerting.
“The minute the foreigners go, life will deteriorate again,” he said. “My family members are in the Afghan army and police, so we’ll be in danger. We’re just trying to survive.”
Better security may be more a function of the Taliban’s desire for a haven near Helmand and Kandahar provinces than a result of Dutch success, others said. Insurgents recently blocked the main Tarin Kowt-Kandahar city highway for 10 days, tripling food prices, hardly a sign that they’re in flight, the others said.
“You don’t control anything if you don’t control the road,” said Arnold Karskens, a Brussels-based correspondent with the Dutch newspaper De Pers, who has reported extensively in Oruzgan.
The Dutch, who have lost 21 soldiers in Afghanistan, have also been criticized for staying in their camps too much, leaving U.S. and Australian troops to handle the heavy fighting. “The others get dirty hands, allowing the Dutch to play the good guys,” Karskens said.
Elements of the “Dutch approach” have been informed, some analysts said, by the hard lessons of the Srebrenica massacre, which occurred in a United Nations enclave.
Testimony and investigations afterward suggested that Dutch troops were not authorized to initiate military action against Serb troops, were used as hostages to prevent retaliation, were poorly led, had weak communication and didn’t receive timely air support. The disaster prompted national soul-searching and the eventual collapse of the Dutch government
In response, some analysts said, the Netherlands pledged to better understand underlying social and political complexities behind conflicts, question conventional wisdom, shun U.N. operations in favor of NATO missions with clear objectives and take steps to ensure coalition support and air cover while preserving some ability to pursue its own nuanced strategy.
Back at the Sar Sheykhil police station, Dutch Sgt. 1st Class Radjen Rampersad showed Afghan police officers how to detain suspects. The lesson got off to a slow start when the interpreter thought he was looking for “hand cloths” rather than “handcuffs,” followed by a cop so eager that he extended his search for guns and knives to the suspect’s mouth. “That’s OK, we don’t need to look inside the fellow,” Rampersad advised.
Eventually, the 40-officer station’s only pair of handcuffs was located and a role-playing exercise initiated. At its completion, Rampersad diplomatically praised the men.
“Compared to Dutch or American police, they’re not professional,” said patrol leader Konings. “But compared to a year ago, they now have a commander and usually have their uniform on.”