Netherlands works the ‘Dutch touch’ in Afghan conflict

July 2nd, 2008 - 8:54 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Taliban
By Nick Allen
Tarin Kowt (Afghanistan), July 2 (DPA) A Dutch soldier snaps a photo of an Afghan elder for his security clearance at the local army base and tells a seated ring of village leaders that he later intends to pass the picture to Taliban insurgents. The pinch of black humour relayed through an interpreter could drop like a lead balloon, but fortunately it’s taken the right way - the dozen Pashtun tribesmen laugh out loud, all except the butt of the joke, who forces a wry grimace.

“They like it when you fool around with them,” warrant officer Nico says after the meeting in the so-called Green Zone, a swathe of lush farmland along the Tiri Rud river in the otherwise barren and Taliban-infested central Uruzgan province.

It’s no play area though. Earlier in the day the enemy fired a 107-mm rocket at the troops and three hours later insurgents launch an attack on a nearby police post, illuminating the sky with explosions and tracer rounds. People die violent deaths here, often.

Yet somewhere between the violence, fear and poverty that plague Afghanistan there is a place for a gentler, more human level of contact between representatives of very different cultures.

It is varyingly seen as a strength and weakness of the 1,650 Dutch troops deployed in the country that they tend to be less confrontational and less hard-hitting than, say, their US or British allies.

“We’re here to work safely, we are not here to get (the Taliban) all the time but to work with the people,” said Dennis, a sergeant first class who like the rest of the contingent does not use his surname for security reasons.

“We usually work in groups of 50 to 60 so that if the Taliban see us they think ‘not today’. But if they want to shoot, let them,” he added.

Insurgents shelter in local houses but searches are conducted with an effort towards civility, including a knock or ring on the bell before dozens of dusty army boots stomp through.

At the expense of surprise, women and children are given time to move into a separate room before the unit enters. And in line with NATO policy, the Dutch put Afghan government troops to the fore when searching.

Patrols are often combined with “consent-winning” missions by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to implement projects like the installation of wells and water pumps and the construction of bridges and roads.

It’s not a give-away bonanza: “If you get shot at from a village and you go over there and no-one tells you anything, then I don’t want to do a project there, they’ve got to earn it,” said Nico, who works in the PRT.

There is known to be high-level friction between US and Dutch authorities over what tactics to adopt in Uruzgan, which is also a centre of the illegal opium poppy growing industry.

Critics down the chain of command argue that the softer, reconstruction-focussed path of the Dutch comes at the expense of counter-insurgency operations.

“They are trying to repair the house before they’ve put out the fire,” said a sceptical US Army NCO who has worked in Uruzgan.

After spending more than a year training for the mission, some Dutch troops are indeed frustrated with the “smiling and waving” approach and complain they are hampered by the politicians back home.

“Look how the British and US do things, we need to push harder, hunt them down, but instead we do PRT patrols and build wells and water pumps and then we’re gone in four months,” an infantry sergeant said.

“I’m not saying you should bomb and storm everywhere but if you are going to do something, then do it,” he added.

There are no plans to alter the Dutch way of doing business, according to the contingent commander, Colonel Richard Harskamp, who disagrees that the combat element is being neglected.

“My guys treat people with respect but if they are required to they will fight as fiercely as the US troops,” Harskamp said. “It is showing the guts to take a little more risk by not kicking the door down but knocking and asking to come in. The long term effect is that you can come back.”

Meanwhile, the Taliban are likely indifferent to the distinctions between their enemies. Whether referring to Dutch, Australian or US soldiers, they are collectively tagged ‘Amerikayan’ in the Pashtu language.

Sixteen soldiers from the Netherlands died in Aghanistan since NATO deployed across the southern provinces in 2006. Eleven were killed in combat-related incidents but it’s hard to say if the relatively low number is the result of the lighter Dutch touch.

“We haven’t had as many casualties as the British or Canadians, we have a lot of angels on our shoulders,” concluded one soldier.

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