A car packed with explosives exploded beside a Dutch armored personnel carrier outside a girl’s school in this shambling town of 100,000 on Friday afternoon, killing the driver, one Dutch soldier and around ten Afghans, including several children. The attack was the opening salvo in a major Taliban counter-attack against Dutch, Australian and Afghan forces that have been steadily extending their territory in rugged Uruzgan province north of Kandahar.
In the hours after the bombing, Australian forces patrolled Tarin Kowt under the watchful eye of an aerial drone. But the next wave hit the nearby village of Chura, a few miles to the north, when hundreds of Taliban fighters descended from the mountains to fire rockets, mortars and small arms at checkpoints manned by Dutch and Afghan forces.
Afghan forces held the line as the Dutch moved forward, calling in 155-millimeter artillery fire and Apache attack helicopters firing rockets and cannons. Dutch F-16 fighter jets based at Kandahar swooped in to drop bombs. The fighting continued into the morning, with no additional coalition casualties reported. Dutch army spokesman Major Erik Jonkers said that at least 30 Taliban had been killed.
Fighting flared up again late on Saturday. Apache crews raced to their choppers while Dutch army Sergeant First Class Richard and his crew – who like many coalition troops asked to be identified by only their first names for security reasons – waited for radio calls from artillery spotters in Chura. They slammed three-foot-tall shells into the breech of their German-made gun and fired. The red arcs of rocket-assisted shells were visible against the starry night.
Uruzgan province sits astride a major smuggling route connecting Pakistan to Helmand province’s expansive poppy fields, which produce a majority of the world’s opium and finance Taliban operations. Since August the Dutch and Australians have carefully pushed into the valley, taking one town at a time and shoring up their defenses with increasing numbers of Afghan police that they train themselves at Camp Holland.
The Dutch soldier killed on Friday represented only the second combat fatality for that nation’s approximately 2,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan. Prior to Friday, the Dutch had taken a much-criticized “softer” approach to warfare than their allies, focusing on reconstruction, training and humanitarian operations as a means of winning over Afghanistan’s xenophobic rural tribes as they expanded their sphere of influence. A joint Dutch and Australian “Provincial Reconstruction Team” represents the major military formation in Uruzgan.
“We’re not hunting the Taliban,” Jonkers said on Thursday. “We’re here to make them not important any more. But it’s not about cowardice. When we fight, we fight.”
Reconstruction in Tarin Kowt – including an Australian project to rebuild a soccer field at a boys’ school – continued despite the Taliban attacks. On Friday, engineers spread tons of fresh dirt for the field while the wreckage of the suicide bomber’s car continued to burn two blocks away.