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Page last updated at 23:52 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 00:52 UK

Dutch 'success' in Afghan conflict

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Kabul

Dutch patrol in Uruzgan
The emphasis of the Dutch operation in Uruzgan is on restraint

Parked on the tarmac at Kabul airport was the gleaming, freshly-painted Antonov plane. We climbed aboard the first ever commercial flight to Uruzgan.

Inside we had a choice of seats. We were the only passengers on the Kam Air flight to Tirin Kot.

Flying above the vast, rugged expanse of southern Afghanistan, snow-capped peaks, barren mountains and fertile, green valleys, the journey took us into the heart of former Taliban territory.

The new air service to Uruzgan is one sign of the small but surprising progress being made by the Dutch who are in charge of international forces in the province.

Uruzgan is a bright spot in an otherwise depressing region for America and its allies.

Almost everywhere else in southern Afghanistan insurgent attacks have risen rapidly.

'Unique approach'

In Uruzgan attacks are falling, and areas under Taliban control are shrinking.

The Dutch say this progress is, in part, down to their unique approach.

Dutch commander Gen Tom Middendorp
[The Taliban's] freedom of movement is being limited more and more to the rough terrain
Dutch commander Gen Tom Middendorp

Still dangers are everywhere, particularly from roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

So we rode into Tirin Kot in an armoured personnel carrier with Dutch soldiers who are trying to turn Afghan officers into professional policemen.

Outside the main police station was a pile of wrecked police cars, many destroyed by insurgents.

When the Dutch officer asked the policemen who was going to walk at the front of today's patrol, they all looked nervous.

"We want you to be friendly with the people. Stop and chat to them," said the Dutch commander.

"You have to win their trust to do your job properly."

It is a tall order. Many Afghans distrust the police. They see them as corrupt and brutal.

Back in the Netherlands, Rino, one of the Dutch police trainers, usually works at Schipol airport in Amsterdam.

"I think it's getting better because specially in the past there was a lot of corruption and they used a lot of violence," he says.

"So now we are bringing another attitude to these guys. And that is what they have to learn, to get more in contact with the local people."

Restraint

And that pretty much sums up the Dutch approach too.

Dutch soldiers in Uruzgan
Critcs accuse the Dutch of shying away from a fight

In everything they do the Dutch stress restraint, not warfare, trying to understand and befriend local people and make fighting the last resort.

Civilian advisers and an academic who has studied Afghan tribes guide the military in every step they take.

The Dutch concentrate their forces in the towns and villages where 70% of Uruzgan's almost one million people live, not in the more remote villages and valleys where the Taliban operate.

By contrast the British forces in neighbouring Helmand are spread across less populated areas.

They are more isolated, and can provide less security to local people.

The Dutch place less emphasis on finding and killing Taliban, more on winning over local Afghans to leave the insurgents isolated and irrelevant.

They call it a "population-centric" approach, and say it's the best way to defeat an insurgency.

When the Dutch arrived in Uruzgan three years ago the situation was as bad as, if not worse, than Helmand.

The province was in danger of falling to the Taliban who were just a couple of kilometres outside Tirin Kot.

'Security is good'

For two years the Dutch fought hard battles, but now they are expanding their areas of control.

In Helmand the British are still bogged down. The Dutch patrol stopped one young man, a student called Karimullah.

"Security is good here now," he tells me.

"Outside the city there are some problems. Maybe six or seven kilometres outside the town there are still difficulties. But because of the soldiers things are getting better."

The Dutch work closely too with the local government, the Afghan police and the Afghan army, co-ordinating and planning everything they do together.

They also get involved in local tribal issues, trying to sort out disputes, to understand and influence local people.

While we were in Uruzgan the first treatment centre for drug addicts in the province opened up, as did a training school for street children.

Map

Heroin addiction is a huge problem. There are over 1,000 addicts in Tirin Kot, a town of 60,000.

The only place they used to go for treatment was the local prison, to be locked away so they could kick the habit.

It is exactly the sort of progress the Dutch want to bring and hope will win over locals.

And it seems to be working.

"If the foreign forces listen to the community, and make some contributions, bringing development, the people will support them," one local man told me.

But he added that the Dutch approach means some areas of the province have been effectively ceded to the Taliban, and security there has got worse.

'Shy away'

"Those areas we call 'Taliban rest places', they rest there and fight in other parts of Uruzgan and neighbouring provinces," the local man said.

Critics say the Dutch, unlike the British in neighbouring Helmand, shy away from a fight.

But the British have taken around 10 times as many casualties, over 160, compared with 18 Dutch casualties.

Search being carried out in Uruzgan
A tough line is taken against suspected drugs offences

While the British are struggling to gain ground, the area under Dutch control is growing.

And the Dutch commander General Tom Middendorp says he is not handing territory to his enemy.

"No. Their freedom of movement is being limited more and more to the more rough terrain," Gen Middendorp says.

"In the beginning, two years ago they covered the whole province. Now they cover only the more outer parts. There they have less chance of surviving.

"You have to make choices. You can't cover anywhere. You have to start on the key areas, and the key areas are the populated areas.

"And as soon as you have these and as soon as you have got the Afghan army and the Afghan police coming in and you improve their quality so they can take over in these areas, then you can expand."

The Dutch acknowledge that their task may be easier than in neighbouring provinces.

The terrain in Uruzgan is more mountainous so the Dutch can occupy high ground and dominate areas while the Taliban are restricted in their movement.

The local insurgents are divided and lack leadership.

And the Taliban are concentrating their efforts on Helmand, because it is the source of most opium, and Kandahar, because it has huge strategic significance as their former base.

Also heavy fighting there makes it harder for the insurgents to get men and weapons into Uruzgan.

The new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has been touring the country.

He has been sent by President Barack Obama to turn around the war.

Just before his helicopter left Uruzgan he told me that to win against the Taliban the military must, like the Dutch, make protecting and helping civilians their priority.

"We need to focus on the Afghan people, we need to focus on protecting them. We need to focus on helping them have governance and development," Gen McChrystal said.

"We need to make this war about protecting them from violence and coercion from the insurgency. And I think as we inculcate that in the entire force I think we will be very successful."

So here in the heart of Afghanistan is a rare example where progress is being made in the war.

But it is fragile.

Dutch politicians want their forces to pull out next year, and when they go, all the careful gains they have made could easily be lost.



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