In the summer of 2007, I spent a week in Uruzgan, southern Afghanistan, reporting on the Dutch occupation of that desert province. It was my first trip to Afghanistan as a freelance war correspondent, and I was stoked for some action. It was either fate’s cruel sense of humor or spitefulness on NATO’s part that I wound up in Uruzgan. The Dutch had been there a year with hardly any fighting — and that was exactly how they liked it. “You can’t win hearts and minds by shooting at people,” one Dutch commander said.
Other NATO troops — the Americans, in particular — mocked the Dutch for their attitude. At the time, the non-Americans in the alliance were all organized under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. American soldiers told me it stood for “I Saw Americans Fight,” as though other countries had come to Afghanistan strictly as spectators.
In Uruzgan, I dutifully reported on some (pretty boring) reconstruction activities. I was interviewing an officer about plans to rebuild a soccer field at an Afghan boys’ school when the nearby girls’ school exploded. A suicide bomber had struck a Dutch convoy right outside the facility. One Dutch soldier died; so did a dozen Afghans, mostly children. Later, hearing a recording of the death cries of dismembered children, I was sorry I’d ever wished for “action.”
The fighting escalated into a three-day battle that claimed the lives of around 100 people, many of them civilians killed when the Dutch began firing artillery into a town overrun by the Taliban. The Dutch people back home reacted with horror. Politicians began fighting over whether to withdraw their troops. After all, “reconstruction” and “heart and minds” operations aren’t supposed to be so bloody.