NATO Confronts Surprisingly Fierce Taliban
Militia Undermines Rebuilding Efforts in Southern Province of Uruzgan

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.

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.

They have learned difficult lessons already.

"Nobody saw it coming," Rietdijk said, referring to the Taliban offensive. "They were there before anybody knew it. I keep asking myself: 'Did we miss something? Was there someone to blame it on?' "

'Intelligence Was Wrong'

In late November, a new commander arrived in Uruzgan to take charge of Dutch combat forces in the region. Lt. Col. Tjerk Hogeveen had a grip of steel and a passion for paragliding off mountaintops.

Just as his reconstruction counterpart, Rietdijk, had been briefed on his arrival, Hogeveen had been told to expect little or no trouble from the Taliban in his sector of Deh Rawood.

Although Taliban fighters had routed villagers from their homes, they had made no major effort to attack coalition forces. Rietdijk's troops halted most of their reconstruction work and concentrated on providing food, blankets and other humanitarian aid to the hundreds of refugees who had descended on impoverished friends and relatives south of the Tarin River.

"The Americans told us there were no Taliban on the east bank," Hogeveen said. "Everyone told us it was safe -- no Taliban."

But the Taliban had good reason to want to reclaim Deh Rawood. As the district surrounding Omar's home town of the same name, it held symbolic importance to the Islamic militia. It held strategic importance, too: The district sits at the confluence of the Helmand and Tarin rivers on the most important drug- and arms-trafficking route in rugged Uruzgan province, connecting it to Iran to the west and Pakistan to the south.

As Hogeveen was settling into his armor-plated metal bunker at the main Dutch base, Camp Holland, near the provincial capital of Tarin Kot, Taliban fighters were evicting local police from three of Deh Rawood's most strategic checkpoints. They bribed officers to abandon one post, kidnapped the son of a policeman at a second checkpoint and attacked the third, sending officers fleeing. They turned a local school into their headquarters and stocked it with weapons and ammunition, Hogeveen said he learned later.

Then they lay in wait and ambushed the first unsuspecting Dutch convoy they spotted.

"They were better prepared than anyone led us to believe," Hogeveen said.

Hogeveen's troops and the Taliban skirmished almost daily.

In mid-December, fighters yanked a 60-year-old woman and her 7-year-old grandson off a bus in Deh Rawood. They interrogated the pair and, after finding a U.S. dollar bill in the boy's pocket, accused the two of spying and executed them in front of the other passengers and bystanders, according to accounts by Afghan human rights groups, news services and Dutch officers.

Meanwhile, on the advice of U.S. and Dutch intelligence officers, Hogeveen prepared a battle plan for routing the Taliban: "The intelligence guys said, 'If you go in with large forces, they will leave,' " Hogeveen recalled in an interview.

He sent larger contingents of heavily armored troops into the heart of the Taliban stronghold in northern Deh Rawood, a jumble of mud houses connected by mazes of narrow lanes.

"Everyone thought the Taliban would not fight," Hogeveen said. "The intelligence was wrong."

Taking up defensive positions in the warrens of mud compounds, the Taliban fighters didn't need large numbers to put up a strong fight against Hogeveen's men. In the darkness and chaos of the unexpectedly strong Taliban defenses, Hogeveen lost two soldiers. Two Afghan army troops also died in the fighting. The Dutch military is now investigating whether all four may have been killed by "friendly fire."

Today, after 2 1/2 months of often intense combat, Dutch troops have reclaimed some of the villages of Deh Rawood and are helping villagers repair the damage caused by weeks of fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban. They have also started many new projects and are working more closely with tribal leaders, the Afghan army and local police to provide better security for the residents.

Even so, the Dutch say, the Taliban forces have merely relocated to the fringes of the district, and thousands of villagers remain too frightened to return to their homes.

The resilience of the Taliban, a shortage of NATO forces and the Dutch philosophy that the Afghan people need to take charge of their own lives have prompted the Dutch to adopt a precarious strategy for Uruzgan: evict the Taliban from small enclaves while ceding the surrounding territory to them in hopes that neighboring communities will oust them on their own.

"We still don't have the full view of what happened below the radar in Deh Rawood," said Col. Richard van Harskamp, commander of all Dutch forces in Uruzgan.

"There are no quick wins in Afghanistan," he added. "People who want to have quick wins better know how to deal with disappointments."

'He Is Afraid'

The Dutch have confronted obstacles off the battlefield as well.

On one of the coldest days yet in an usually brutal winter, Rietdijk, the Dutch reconstruction chief, met with Uruzgan Gov. Assadullah Hamdam in his ramshackle compound in Tarin Kot. The men responsible for the security of Uruzgan sat around a wood stove: the police chief, the general of the local contingent of the Afghan army, the chief of the highway patrol.

Rietdijk asked the governor to help him find an influential tribal leader to help coordinate new construction projects in his district.

"I have met with him twice," Hamdam said quietly. "He will not help you. He is afraid."

Rietdijk persisted, taking a sip of steaming green tea the governor had poured into a glass mug.

"He is not the man," Hamdam said more firmly. "He is afraid."

The subject turned to the three new police substations and four new police checkpoints planned for Deh Rawood. The police chief urged the Dutch to provide supplies and better accommodations while the new facilities are being built.

"We don't have tents, we don't have food, we don't have transportation," complained the chief, Juma Gul, a hefty man with the jowls of a bulldog.

"We need to get out there with police and make sure the region is safe," Rietdijk said. "We can't wait for a checkpoint. We have to go out. I don't think we can wait."

"A checkpoint is important," pressed the police chief.

"I can't give birth to a checkpoint tomorrow," Rietdijk said, a bit testily.

Gul later turned to another problem with his officers. "Some of my men don't want to go back to Deh Rawood," the chief warned. "They're possibly going to leave without permission."

Half a dozen times during the meeting, Gul pleaded with Dutch representatives for more money to run his department.

"I need money for food for my men, this is not for my own pocket," the police chief said. "Do you know the price of bread in Tarin Kot these days?"

"I know all the problems," an exasperated Rietdijk said. "I've heard them 30 times."

Rietdijk said that despite the constant nagging, he respects Gul.

But after about five months on the job, Gul is ready to quit, according to Uruzgan's governor.

"He wanted to quit. The job is too much," said Hamdam, whose wife and children live in London. "I told him, 'It's going to take patience.' "

Gul complained that he was sending recruits with only two weeks' training to the front lines to fight the Taliban. Their salaries were weeks late because the money had to be hand-carried from Kabul to Tarin Kot and winter snows had canceled many flights. There is no functioning bank in all of Uruzgan. The Interior Ministry in Kabul will not even tell the governor or the police chief how much money they have to run their department, Hamdam said.

Hamdam paused, then sighed. On this day, the heater was not working in his ice-cold office. He has heard the Dutch say dozens of times that it is up to him and his security team to provide security for his people.

He shook his head. He knows the Dutch are committed to remain in Afghanistan only another 2 1/2 years. He now has just over 1,300 police officers; his police chief says they need 3,000.

"There's not enough force," Hamdam said. "The police are not strong enough, and we can't depend on the Afghan army. The police can't go alone without the coalition forces.

"If they were not here," he said, "who knows what would happen."

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