New US Afghan policy: let’s get out of here fast
Dutch report paints grim picture of US Marines’ recent achievements in Afghanistan
One of the most sobering and realistic audits of the achievements of the international forces in Afghanistan must be the document published by the aid liaison organisation TLO following the withdrawal of Dutch forces - and Dutch aid efforts – from Uruzgan province in August.
'The Dutch Engagement in Uruzgan: 2006 –2010' deserves far wider circulation than I fear it is now getting. The Dutch achievement has been much deeper than might have been expected - particularly in education, local government, basic health care and diversification of agriculture away from poppies and opium.
In the estimation of many, including senior British commanders like Major General Nick Carter, who heads ISAF in Kandahar, for four years the Dutch ran one of the most successful, though low-profile, provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), based on a cluster of centres, such as Tarin Kot, the provincial capital, Gizab and Khas Uruzgan.
By working a careful balance between the international Dutch and Australian forces, plus a few local Afghan forces and aid agencies, schools and clinics were opened and local councils were elected and started functioning.
But in the report by the Swiss-based TLO, there is a distinct air of melancholy. It hints strongly that the aid efforts in Uruzgun and in neighbouring parts of Helmand may be on borrowed time. The report is sharply critical of what the American-led PRT has done since the Dutch left. There is some hint that the Americans are in a hurry, and want to quit soon.
This has been confirmed this week by British sources in the region, who suggest that the Americans seem to be aiming at starting to reduce their efforts in southern Afghanistan from the end of March next year.
One of the proudest achievements by the Dutch is in education. In 2006 there were only 34 schools in Uruzgan, with girls going to school only in Tarin Kot. By the summer of this year, 159 schools were operating, including 29 girls' schools.
Security is still a major problem. The number of Afghan forces in the province has gone up slightly to around 5,500, but the professionalism and loyalty of the police are still problematic. The report estimates that up to 3,500 Taliban are operating in Uruzgan, a province much smaller in size and population than neighbouring Helmand and Kandahar. The Taliban have ready access to the unrestricted flow of poppy and heroin trafficking from northern Helmand.
The local population reacted badly to the news of the Dutch withdrawal, says the report. "A carefully established balance of power between tribal leaders is at risk of unravelling... possibly by pushing some community leaders into the insurgency."
The TLO claims that when the Americans arrived and took over from the Dutch, "US forces were seen as intervening in tribal affairs by supporting the Popalzai government leaders (Karzai's tribe) and including Ghilzai, Achekzai, Barakazai and Nurzai/Babozai communities who were seen as associated with the Taliban insurgency."
In other words, down on the ground the Americans are seen to be taking sides in a Pashtun tribal civil war.
There is an abrupt change of strategy by the Americans in Sangin – the town at the centre of drug-smuggling territory in central Helmand - which the US Marines have just taken over from the British.
The Marines have ditched the British 'people-centric' tactic of dotting the district with small bases, all within sight of each other and highly visible to the locals. These bases, with names like Almas and Maboob, were built by men of the Rifles and Royal Marines at a considerable sacrifice of blood and effort; more than 100 British soldiers and Marines have died there since July 2006.
The Americans have decided to scrap the patrol bases and have pulled the Marines into several large bases from which they can mount a series of lightning strikes against the Taliban. "They think this will disrupt the Taliban," said a knowledgeable British aid officer. "[But] the British tried that approach in 2006 and it didn't work."
At the same time, the US Marines will carry out some high-publicity 'quick impact' aid projects. Then, according to aid sources, they intend to start drawing down their military activities across southern Afghanistan to meet President Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning a conventional military withdrawal from Afghanistan – though, of course, this doesn't cover Special Forces operations.
It now looks very much that the British government is working to the same script: intense military activity through the winter, and then a phased withdrawal from the spring.
That's the theory, but the way things are in Afghanistan right now, it may never be converted into practice. As the great Yogi Burra, baseball manager extraordinary, would have said, it ain't all over till it's over.
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