In November 2008, the Dutch army’s Mart de Kruif was promoted to the rank of major general. On the same day, he took over the 12-month command of NATO Regional Command South in Afghanistan and its more than 40,000 coalition troops. He spoke with War Is Boring European correspondent Andrew Balcombe about the U.S. “surge,” British equipment issues and the possible Canadian and Dutch pullout in 2010 and 2011. His replacement, as of November 2009, is British Major General Nick Carter.
by ANDREW BALCOMBE
WIB: What are you doing now?
MK: Besides taking leave and trying to reintegrate with my family, my main job is visiting most of the contributing nations to the south of Afghanistan. I am doing this to pay my respects and express my gratitude for the support I received over the last 12 months. Secondly, to visit the family of the soldiers who were in my staff and injured or killed in action. I am also talking about Afghanistan broadly with opinion leaders and those still yet to be deployed to Afghanistan.
WIB: What toll has it taken on you, visiting the families of the troops who were injured or killed?
MK: It is tough, and I cannot visit them all. I visited the family of a British captain who was killed in my staff. More than 284 soldiers were killed in action during the year that I commanded RC South. Eight of those were from Australia. It is important that I remember these soldiers together with their families. Last week, I went to the U.K., including Belfast. I attended the memorial service to remember the casualties from the 19th Light Brigade, which formed the core of the British mission over the last six months in the south. I was able to talk and share my feelings with them.
Next week I will go the U.S. and visit the Walter Reed hospital and visit some of the wounded soldiers who are working to reintegrate into a normal life again.
WIB: Is enough being done for the troops who return with a disability?
MK: It’s very difficult. From a philosophical point of view, I don’t know if we will always be able to do all that we can. But I think nations involved have their own approaches. We have learned the hard way over the last decades, how to treat families and soldiers wounded in action. I think we do much better now than say a couple of decades ago.
WIB: A majority in the Dutch parliament want to pull out in 2010. Have the Dutch done enough?
MK: It is a Dutch decision whether they want to stay or not. As commander of NATO RC South, I was responsible for 26 nations contributing forces, not just the Dutch. Some of the nations have increased their contribution some have decreased it.
At the end of the day, what is key to me is that the effects brought to Uruzgan by the Australians and the Dutch are maintained over the coming years. Which country is willing to do so, is a NATO issue, as a commander of RC South, I believe it is essential the positive dynamics and developments in Uruzgan keep going. The key is that they have the assets in place to do so.
WIB: If the Dutch pull out their attack helicopters (Apaches) and heavy artillery (Pz-2000s), will the balance of power shift in Uruzgan?
MK: Hard to predict, because the U.S. have contributed a combat aviation battalion in Tarin Kowt, including combat attack helicopters.
What is key is the combination of the Australian MRTF, with its mentoring-combat and reconstruction capability, and the Dutch PRT and force protection. If any one of these elements is not present during the coming months or next year, then we have a significant challenge to continue the positive developments in Uruzgan. That’s key for any future focus in my point of view.
WIB: Harry van Bommel (Dutch Socialist Party MP) said we should stop fighting the Taliban and bring them immediately into the political picture. Wim van den Burg, president of the military union AFMP said, “The Dutch are over-stretched and we have little faith in the Afghan government. They are corrupt and doing business with the warlords who attack ISAF troops. Just like in Vietnam, you cannot deal with a corrupt government to win a war.”
MK: I firmly believe that the Afghan people will support the Afghan authorities and ISAF eventually. The Taliban and the Afghan people are very pragmatic. I know that as soon as they believe ISAF are winning, they will support the Afghan government more.
An example of this is the Australian efforts in Mirabad, where they made use of the locals’ disbelief in the insurgency. They simply convinced the people that the government and the coalition forces represented a better future than the insurgency. The whole area was brought under ISAF and government control without the use of any significant force. We were able to expand the “ink spot” because the local population had more faith in us than the Taliban.
It’s not the first time that Afghanistan has been compared to Vietnam. Firstly the Afghan people are not anti-ISAF and anti-Afghan government. They are afraid, afraid as Hell of elements of the insurgency. Secondly, this is a U.N. operation conducted by NATO, completely different to Vietnam. I would stay away from any comparison with Vietnam; there is also no domino theory here.
UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan) is now in an intense discussion with the new administration and they need our support over the coming few years. I think they will get there.
At the end of the day winning in Afghanistan is a matter of will, rather than capability.
WIB: Do you think the message has been absorbed in The Netherlands, Canada, Britain and Australia? The message I am receiving is the opposite.
MK: It perhaps tells you more about the way we inform the people of why we are there and the information campaign overall, from my point of view we all came back seeing that we made progress. That is the biggest difference with Vietnam, back then, there was not really any belief on the ground that any progress was being made.
WIB: What is the nature of U.S. Special Forces in Uruzgan?
MK: I would say, that the Australian and Dutch focus is where the bulk of the population lives, Tarin Kowt, Chora and Mirabad. The U.S. Special Forces operate in a more austere and rural environment in northern Uruzgan. Which is also key because there are Afghans living there but also insurgent lines of communications, we call them redlines, coming from Daycundi down to Uruzgan.
So the U.S. SF secure the northern flank of the MRTF and the TFU by operating and setting the conditions for the Dutch and Australians to operate in a relatively safe environment.
They operate the same way as ISAF does. They also do reconstruction, mentoring and training, but they fight if they have to. Not so different to the Dutch or Australians. We have a significant amount of U.S. SF operating in Uruzgan.
WIB: How many?
MK: I can’t say.
WIB: Did you have a chance to work closely with the Australians?
MK: Yes, absolutely. I visited the members of the Mentoring Reconstruction Task Force (MRTF) several times. And I was also at the remembrance services at Tarin Kowt for the troops lost. I also had some very high-ranking Australians in my staff and we worked very closely together.
WIB: How would you describe their way of working compared to yours?
MK: Although Australia is not a member of NATO, they are very well aware of the operational planning that NATO uses. Working with the Australian officers was a great honor and pleasure. One time, when the Australians were invaluable was around the Afghan elections. When the additional Australian forces came, we had a very intense and close cooperation with them.
WIB: When are you visiting Australia?
MK: Next January, by invitation by Angus Houston the Chief of Defense Force. I am working out the details right now but I am very happy to go over there. Firstly, to visit some Australian friends and secondly, to share our thoughts on Afghanistan.
Continued in part two.
(Photo: Andrew Balcombe)
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