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 challenges does the new British commander, Nick Carter, of NATO’s southern Afghanistan operations, have to juggle?
MK: The first main challenge will be trying to bring in additional security forces and sustain them while bringing security to the Afghan people. Secondly, he will have to integrate the military effort with the increased mentoring capability that will be employed with the growth of the Afghan security forces. Last but not least, he will have to integrate the international forces with the Afghan forces with civilian assets. It is imperative to increase and improve governance and development. They are some of the real challenges he has.
More on the tactical side, I think the challenge is on the counter Improvised Explosive Device (IED) fight. That is the primary weapon of choice now for the insurgents. We have to do all we can to detect the network that produces the IEDs and find the people who place them. This will increase our protection of the Afghan people as well as our own.
WIB: Are you noticing different methods of operation with the IEDs or the materials they use?
MK: Well, what you see is a constant battle between the insurgents and our selves. We try to improve our knowledge of the network and of finding them. The insurgents always try to build more sophisticated bombs and making them harder to find. Over the last 12 to 14 months we have seen some increase in the number of IEDs, but not a huge increase. Most are home-made and consist of fertilizer-based explosives, quite simple to detect and find.
WIB: How will the U.S. surge effect the operations in the south?
MK: I really welcome the additional forces, especially around central Helmand and Kandahar city. We need more forces to consolidate the shape, clear, build and hold concept. We cannot afford to go into a village at eight in the morning and leave at five in the evening.
We will see more pressure put on the insurgency, an increased number of incidents and probably casualties. Because we will have significantly more forces deployed, it will probably get worse from a numbers point of view before it gets better.
A year from now, I think overall there will be an improvement and that the command and control structure will take on a more U.S. style. Simply because there will be more U.S. officers involved.
WIB: Will that also mean higher civilian casualties?
MK: Well, over the last 12 months ISAF has put a significant amount of effort into limiting the civilian casualties. Most are absolutely caused by the insurgents and not by us. We have limited our deadly force to the utmost to reduce the civilian losses. It is impossible to eliminate the risk totally. It’s very difficult to make such judgments under combat conditions.
We do see the Taliban using human shields, children in particular. So I don’t think we will see higher civilian casualties because of coalition forces, but because of how the Taliban operate.
WIB: What is your interpretation of the beheadings of a boy aged 16 and a 28 year-old man in Tarin Kowt near the ISAF base on December 6?
MK: It clearly shows what a difficult position the insurgency is in now. Normally an insurgency would want to have the spontaneous support of the people. These beheadings clearly show that the support for the insurgency is decreasing, so they have to use more and more terror to force civilian support. The initiative is no longer on the side of the insurgency. They are losing the support of the Afghan people. It also shows you that they don’t have the values and moral standards that we in the western world have.
For me personally, we are in Afghanistan to try and prevent another 9/11 and help bring a better future to 30 million people who have lived through difficult times over the last 30 years. We should not accept that this country be run by those who behead children because they speak to ISAF. Or who throw acid in a girl’s face because she wants to go to school, or deny health care to women, because they are women. For these reasons we should be extremely committed to Afghanistan.
Success in Afghanistan is just a matter of political will. If we have this and some patience, then the situation will become much better in a couple of years.
WIB: How has the Canadian contribution been to work with and will they also pull out?
MK: Well, the Canadians are in a similar discussion as the Dutch but they have to decide a year later than the Dutch.
We have cooperated very well with them and they operated in a very volatile and difficult area (Kandahar city). But the Canadians really showed that they are very capable and professional while operating in a difficult environment. I was really glad to have them in that area. They also did well integrating security and governance and reconstruction efforts.
I have to say that it was quite an honor to work with the Canadians, like it was to work with the Australians.
WIB: Did the bringing in of tanks make a significant effect of reducing casualties?
MK: Well, we already had tanks there, both Canadians and Australians. History will actually tell whether the tanks were a success or not. I can only tell you my impression. My impression was that, as soon as we had to conduct operations with kinetic effects. Everybody wanted to have these tanks. Because they’re protection and firepower and they give a powerful message to the insurgency. From a military point of view, they put us in a very good position.
WIB: Regarding the debate in Britain and the supply of equipment. Commanders on the ground were complaining about lack of equipment and support, especially from the prime minister, Gordon Brown. Did you see any evidence of that?
MK: I think there are three issues here. I did not notice any lack of important equipment with the U.K. armed forces. However I know that from a generic point of view, it is very hard to deploy the best equipment possible in Afghanistan. It is a logistic challenge and a maintenance challenge. It is very hard to keep up with the pace of operations. I think there will always be a kind of generic gap between existing capabilities and capabilities deployed to the theater. There is also a conceptual issue. This is a counter-insurgency and that means you have to interact with the people. So you cannot stay in your operating bases and in your armored vehicles. You will always have to interact with the people. It is boots on the ground, interacting as a mentor for the Afghan security forces, that is key to the success of the counter insurgency, so there will never be a situation in Afghanistan where there is no element of risk. You will always have to consider that balance to have any kind of success in a counter insurgency.
WIB: There is equipment that limits casualties such as blast resistant vehicles; can the British learn from the Dutch there?
MK: I would not compare it because it is not just a matter of equipment but also the different nature of the insurgency in Helmand where the British are, than that in Uruzgan, where the Dutch-Australians are. I wouldn’t compare any task force without weighing in all of the factors. There is no doubt that body armor, protected vehicles and rotor wing (helicopter) capability helps in securing your soldiers and not exposing your soldiers unnecessarily. Nevertheless, you still have to employ your force and you still have to go out. Security is relative- you can never be in a situation where you can avoid all risks. And that is why we deployed the military to southern Afghanistan.
WIB: What equipment developments have had a real impact on the counter insurgency?
MK: There are so many different things, but one is a huge increase in rotary wing capability, especially the deployment of the combat aviation brigades from the United States, with their Chinooks and Blackhawks. This made a huge change in capability.
Regarding our troops, we are always looking at better ways of protecting them by bringing in better material to find IEDs and also to protect against IED blasts. That is why there is a huge push to deploy armored vehicles to southern Afghanistan.
WIB: During your mission, you went into the field four or five times a week to visit troops. What was the most difficult thing about those field visits?
MK: Quite simple, it was not the threat posed upon us by the insurgents but rather the climate and the operational tempo. When it is 60 degrees Celsius and you have to walk out on patrol with your body armour and 25 kilos or more of field kit, it is not easy going. It just increases my respect for the soldiers doing it everyday. Actually, when I went out there and visited troops in the field, I always came back with a good feeling. I saw first hand the huge commitment and dedication of the soldiers and it impressed me greatly every time.
The daily conferences with the command of ISAF made me more aware of the situation overall. It increased our synchronization especially with Regional Command West and East who were flanking us and shared borders. It also showed me the intent of the commander of ISAF, General Stanley McChrystal. Everyday he was able to express his will and gave us a much better understanding of the overall situation and what his intentions were.
WIB: What was the most difficult thing about coordinating all of the RC South forces under your command?
MK: Actually that went relatively well. I was very impressed by the support from all of the nations. I was never put in a position where any of the nations involved tried to push their will directly or indirectly. I felt that over the last twelve months, I had complete freedom and trust of the contributing nations.
I think what is a real issue is more that of leadership between the coalition forces and the Afghan security forces. NATO tries to delegate the authority to as lower a level as possible. But the Afghans are more centralized in their lines of authority still. So if we want to work better with the Afghan security forces, we need to really think about how to synchronize with them better.
WIB: Did the video-conferences also give a clearer picture of which provinces were really under pressure?
MK: Yes, especially in RC East, we also had a close relationship with them. I went to RC East and they came to me and we also had a large exchange of staff officers. Video-conferences are a great asset but at the end of the day, you have to look your subordinate commanders in the eye, you have at look the commanders of the TFU, the commanders of the battalions and the MRTF in the eye and ask for their perception of the ground truth. Human interaction gave me a huge amount of information and better perception of whether we have the concept right of shape clear, hold and build. I think we have. The additional troops will now ensure that we can resource the concept. What we need is patience to allow the concept to build and mature.
I have to say this to the international community and some critics of NATO. We couldn’t have worked in RC South without NATO. Its infrastructure allowed a small staff to command 17 contributing nations and more than 40,000 personnel. It is because of NATO that any Joint Forward Air Controller on the ground can talk with any plane in the air.
(Photo: Andrew Balcombe)
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