Dutch try soft power to defeat Taleban
US bombs failed to eradicate Afghan militia; Nato hopes to make them irrelevant
Standing on a ridge in a remote province in south-central Afghanistan, a Dutch platoon commander surveys a cluster of mud buildings through his field glasses.
Because of an alert about a possible ambush, it has taken the heavily armed convoy of mechanised infantry and engineers nearly five hours to cover the few kilometres from a Netherlands-led military base to Khaneqah village in Uruzgan province. But after getting there, the mission to inspect a school in need of reconstruction is quickly aborted.
This is Taleban country. Were foreign soldiers to enter the village, the commander decides, they would trigger a firefight with insurgents concealed in homes enclosed within high mud walls.
As the US, British and Canadian soldiers fighting the Taleban in neighbouring Helmand and Kandahar provinces have found, a battle in an inhabited area would inevitably have caused innocent villagers to die.
But the Dutch in Uruzgan are following a different strategy. Better to withdraw from Khaneqah and try another time, they reason.
'Our objective is to focus on the people, and not on the enemy,' said Colonel Hans van Griensven, commander of the Dutch military base Kamp Holland. 'We're not here to fight the Taleban. We're here to make the Taleban irrelevant.'
The Dutch took charge of Uruzgan, the ancestral homeland of the Taleban's fugitive one-eyed chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, eight months ago as part of a Nato-led security force which is seeking desperately to contain the Islamist insurgency spreading across southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Before the Dutch, the Americans had used immense firepower, including B-1 bombers, to try to blast the Taleban out of its strongholds in Uruzgan's sparsely populated villages, which sit like green stains amid arid brown mountain peaks.
The US assault was a failure.
Uruzgan is one of Afghanistan's poorest and most isolated provinces, with only one highway connecting it to the rest of the country. Even this newly built road is subject to deadly rebel attack.
The region gets an adequate supply of water from mountain streams and rivers, but deforestation, poor irrigation and primitive agricultural practices mean subsistence farming, mainly of wheat and cumin seeds, predominates. Poppies are a popular cash crop today. Few farmers have the money or the patience to revive the production of almonds for which Uruzgan was once famous.
After the ousting of the Taleban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, the first murder of an international aid worker in the country occurred in Uruzgan. The death of Salvadorean water engineer Ricardo Munguia four years ago led the United Nations, the Red Cross and other international aid organisations to withdraw their staff from Uruzgan, leaving its people, who are largely from Pashtun tribes, all but abandoned to the opium smugglers and the Taleban.
'After 2001, nobody took care of Uruzgan, so there has been very little development here,' said Colonel Van Griensven. 'But we are military people, and the locals see us as foreigners and infidels. So our objective is to help the provincial government improve security, stimulate development and provide an alternative to the armed opposition.'
The Dutch describe it as the 3-D approach - defence, diplomacy and development. Modern counterinsurgency theorists also know it as the 'inkspot' strategy - securing enclaves within rebel-held areas and gaining the confidence of the people by helping them rebuild, in the hope that the pacified zones gradually spread like ink on paper.
Before they took charge last August, the Dutch insisted on the sacking of the province's US-allied governor, Jan Mohammed Khan, whose partisan and brutal rule saw the imprisonment and death of many people, often from rival sub-tribes.
The new governor is from another province and is a former Taleban. 'The advantage with an outsider is that he can retain a balance between various sub-tribes,' said Colonel Van Griensven. 'The drawback could be that it's difficult for him to gain the trust of local leaders.'
The Dutch differ from the Americans in another significant way - they refuse to destroy the poppy crop, since eradication impoverishes farmers and creates enemies. What is unclear, though, is whether, after the poppy harvest is over, they will use the police to intercept and destroy vehicles transporting the opium.
'This is the best way to cripple the Taleban, since the farmer has already been paid and even one destroyed truck of opium would be a big loss,' said a Dutch soldier. 'But we hear there's pressure from high above not to do it.' High above means Kabul.
It is also true that Uruzgan is woefully short of policemen - just 300 for the entire province, led by an outsider. The Dutch therefore are concentrating on creating an auxiliary force - training and arming villagers willing to fight the Taleban.
There are major problems with the auxiliary police, too - illiteracy, drug addiction, corruption, sometimes the sale of arms to the Taleban.
For Colonel Van Griensven, a crucial aim now is to persuade the UN and international NGOs to return to Uruzgan.
'It's important for the people to see development. As for the Taleban, in one way or another they will always be there. The people have to reject them,' he says.