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A Shifting Mission in Afghanistan

NATO Confronts Surprisingly Fierce Taliban

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

TARIN KOT, Afghanistan -- Lt. Col. Wilfred Rietdijk, a 6-foot-7 blond Dutchman, took command of his military's reconstruction team in the southern Afghan district of Deh Rawood in September. Tranquil and welcoming, it seemed like the perfect place for the Netherlands' mission to help rebuild this country.

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Intelligence reports indicated that the district was free of the Taliban, allowing the soldiers greater freedom of movement than elsewhere in Uruzgan province.

"We could go out on foot," Rietdijk said.

Reconstruction teams, escorted by a platoon of soldiers, fanned across the fertile countryside, building bridges over streams and canals, repairing irrigation systems, and distributing books and pens to local schools.

But the day after Rietdijk arrived in Afghanistan, his field officers reported hundreds of villagers suddenly fleeing parts of Deh Rawood. "Within a few weeks, everybody was gone," Rietdijk said. "We didn't understand why."

Now the Dutch say they realize what happened. Even as the soldiers believed they had won the support of the local population, the Taliban had secretly returned to reclaim Deh Rawood, home district of the group's revered leader, Mohammad Omar. It took only a few months for the Taliban to undermine nearly six years of intelligence work by U.S. forces and almost two years of goodwill efforts by Dutch soldiers.

In the year and a half since NATO took over southern Afghanistan from U.S. forces, its mission has changed dramatically. Dispatched to the region to maintain newly restored order and help local Afghans reconstruct their shattered communities, Dutch and other troops from the alliance now find themselves on the front lines of a renewed fight with a more cunning and aggressive Taliban.

More foreign soldiers and Afghan civilians died in Taliban-related fighting last year than in any year since U.S. and coalition forces ousted the extremist Islamic militia, which ruled most of the country, in 2001. Military officials here expect the coming year to be just as deadly, if not more so, as the Taliban becomes more adept militarily and more formidable in its deployment of suicide bombers and roadside explosives.

The Taliban's growing strength, which surprised Dutch forces here, helps explain why NATO members are reluctant to send more troops to an increasingly dangerous battlefield and have instead adopted a strategy based less on military force.

In his recent criticism of NATO's refusal to deploy more forces, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates accused the alliance of being ill-prepared for counterinsurgency operations. NATO countries, however, while not opposed to the war effort in Afghanistan, have always viewed the key to success as one that relied on giving Afghans new schools, health clinics and other elements of a sturdy civil society.

Taliban fighters began arriving in the heart of Deh Rawood -- a triangle-shaped district about seven miles long and seven miles wide -- late last summer. They came one by one, or in groups of twos and threes. They rented mud houses, befriended neighbors with gifts of cellphones and motorcycles and appealed to villagers on the grounds that the Taliban was fighting for the cause of Islam.

By autumn, for reasons even some villagers didn't understand, the Taliban turned on them, driving them out of their houses and ripping up the new NATO-built bridges. The Dutch have since pushed Taliban fighters out of the district, but have decided not to push them beyond the surrounding territory.


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