An hour-long gut-churning flight in a West Virginia Air Guard C-130 was all it took to teleport me from the shambling, somewhat goofy, Third-World Disneyland that is U.N.-occupied Kabul to Tarin Kowt, a tiny dusty hamlet wedged between steep mountain ranges and sitting astride the Taliban’s main supply route from Pakistan. Here, a couple thousand Dutch and Aussies are pursuing separate but complementary strategies to enlist Uruzgan province’s 340,000 people in the fight against (mostly) Pakistani extremists. The Dutch work to build “capacity” for economic growth — training carpenters, electricians, policemen and bureaucrats — while the Aussies roll in with cranes and bulldozers to rebuild ruined roads, bridges and buildings: all in an effort to improve Afghans’ lives and draw them into a democratic, relatively progressive national society where extremists have no toehold.
“It isn’t easy,” admits Dutch army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Erik Jonkers, and the province isn’t there yet. Security is still a major problem, so all the reconstruction work takes place within a steel ring of security provided by Dutch F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters, Dutch artillery and Dutch and Aussie light armor. The task force’s emphasis on education and construction in such a volatile environment has drawn some criticism. One Afghan even joked that, in this case, NATO stood for “No Action, Talk Only.” But Jonkers protests. He describes the firm preventative action the Dutch task force took earlier this year to head off the traditional Taliban “spring offensive.” When Taliban fighters ventured down from the mountains, Dutch armored personnel carriers sporting heavy machine guns were there to greet them. “When we fight, we fight,” Jonkers says. “But we’re not hunting the Taliban. We’re trying to make them not important any more.
The photo, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, illustrates perfectly my first glimpse of Tarin Kowt from the hold of my C-130.