What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Uruzgan bombings - Were the Dutch bombed back to base?

MStFB update____Updated here and here
This will be mostly about pointing to relatively fresh pieces of news on Uruzgan, and some controversial issues that came up in the press recently.
Following the Tuesday suicide bombing in Deh Rawod, the Netherlands have lost another soldier in combat (Lieutenant Tom Krist was among those wounded in that bombing). Together with Timo Smeehuyzen, who was also killed in a suicide bombing, a previous one in Tarin Kowt, and the others who were killed in action, he is the fourth Dutch combat casualty. It is telling that the Dutch military is losing its soldiers to suicide bombings, combat-related accidents, and to mine traps. No firefight KIAs. It's that sort of war.
Over at War is Boring, David Axe has come up with a rather strange article on how Dutch soldier Timo Smeehuyzen died on June 15. I say it's strange, because although there is useful information in it, some of which can actually be cross-checked and verified, it contains only internal links if I observed this correctly (update: save for an irrelevant one on the Bushmaster armoured vehicle), and there's no source explicitly named in the original text. Which is troubling, given how Axe attempts to provide a very detailed and also very critical reconstruction of what happened in the case of the June 15 suicide bombing (later, in an update he says he was working on the basis of eyewitness accounts; probably meaning what he was told by people he has personally met in Uruzgan and then stayed in touch with). Even if I'm not at all sure the Dutch were really doing so badly in the wake of that bombing as he says, and although I know full well that, contrary to what Axe writes in the article, the fighting last month around Chora wasn't "the first major combat in decades" for the Dutch army, at least I got to know how the car bomber first approached the Dutch convoy from the front, then turned into a sidestreet, and came out of there to ram the convoy. As it turns out from the comments sent in, including a comment by Dutch army spokesman Major Eric Jonkers, the car bomber didn't actually fully contact the convoy, but got stuck in a ditch just before the blast. Timo Smeehuyzen died of shrapnel wounds 'to the facial area', with the shrapnel entering his vehicle from the exploding car. A hat tip then to Bob, among the commenters there, for pointing out how there were also children and a woman in the suicide bomber's car when he first approached the convoy, probably to make him look less suspicious while he was looking for the ideal position to approach the attack site from. (There is lengthy footage, where the bomber's car can also be seen, capturing the minutes preceding the attack, shot by a journalist who was there in the convoy. Commenters on Axe's site are speaking on the basis of that. I haven't checked the video myself yet. If I spot something extra there, I'll just come back to update this post later.)
But then there follows the rather superficial debate in Axe's blogpost, between Axe and the Dutch military, provoked by Axe's original article, on whether a vehicle in the Dutch convoy stopped for picking berries from a tree or whether its antenna just got caught by the tree branches, so that it had to be freed. That was a bit controversial indeed, I mean from Axe.
Off to something else. From another post on Axe's blog, a blog which I generally appreciate much more than in the case of his previously mentioned post, you can learn where some of the money the Dutch have spent on operations in Uruzgan has gone. Coming to Uruzgan the Dutch saw the need to buy better protection for their soldiers hitting the roads in Uruzgan, and so they bought 25 Australian Bushmaster vehicles, for the price of 25 million euros. (In a previous comment on this site Bob has pointed to the costs of raising Camp Holland, too, and the expensive special blastproof containers for the troops stationed there.)
This connects to an article from Radio Netherlands actually, given how the latter article is pondering whether Dutch voters were fooled by Dutch politicians into thinking that the Uruzgan mission would be a peace-keeping mission. That the Dutch leadership probably was indeed forced to use a 'soft-sell' approach to popularise the deployment, back in 2006, seems obvious. I would doubt, however, that one can really benevolently suppose the Dutch voter to be so naive as to imagine there are parties to neutrally keep the peace between in Uruzgan (that would also presuppose that the Dutch voter is stupid and has never heard of the Taliban, or of that there is a guerrilla war in Afghanistan). That reasoning looks more like some parties seeking an excuse for saying that several 'ugly politicians' lied to the 'people', so let's get out. There's also criticism of the fact that the Netherlands haven't carried out many development projects in Uruzgan. Well, some journalists so often don't even attempt to be consistent in their argumentation that it's really annoying. They expect the Dutch military not to lose soldiers, and then they apparently wonder why Dutch NGOs don't feel safe going to remote parts of Uruzgan to work there. Oh yes, and they also wonder why the costs are high... well, keeping troops at the other end of the world just to have them staying in their base for much of the time is luxury indeed. And now the ultimate spin is that, after first there was pressure on politicians to present a fairytale version of what to expect in Uruzgan, now it is demanded from them why they did that, now that the fairytale has inevitably turned out to be false. (These are more general remarks from me, not specifically about the RN article referred to above.)
Regarding this staying-back-at-the-base thing, while I don't think Dutch soldiers aren't looking at times to bend such policies in the periods when such policies are introduced, and while so I don't think they really obediently stay back there all the time in such times, apparently they have become a lot more passive in Tarin Kowt after the June 15 suicide bombing. And so I wouldn't be surprised to learn if that's one of the reasons why the Taliban carried out another massive suicide bombing in Deh Rawod this week, to get the Dutch military to become more passive even there, and to have Dutch units disturb their operations less in that area, too, now. Key moves for them, I would think, in sustaining their war in neighbouring Helmand and Kandahar.
If the result in Deh Rawod is that (passivity by the Dutch) indeed, which I can in no way judge right now, then we're back to the topic of the Uruzgan NSE (negative spill-over), with the Taliban operating quite freely in Uruzgan, and thus back where my whole series on the Dutch approach started back in April.
Update No. 1: I just found this forum where some people got from discussing David Axe's article to discussing even the U.S. role in WWII worryingly quickly. But while it's easy to be critical of all the comments there that seem to regard the low number of Dutch KIAs as the absolute indicator of success (as though the sole purpose of military operations could be the survival of the participants - it's best to stay home then, actually), David Axe can of course be criticised a lot for apparently not putting enough effort into checking the basic facts, when in fact it is so easy to get them wrong. To give an example based on what I've written, to describe the June 15 bombing I used the sentence "Timo Smeehuyzen died of shrapnel wounds 'to the facial area', with the shrapnel entering his vehicle from the exploding car". Now that turns out to be inaccurate. He was standing halfway outside his vehicle, as you can learn from one of the commenters following the link above, and so the shrapnel that hit him didn't actually enter the vehicle.
Update No.2: When I mentioned the above discussion forum, I haven't yet got to this comment from a certain Vinz52: "Our government is just now discussing a possible prolonged stay in Uruzgan. Running a news-service, I will contact all political parties and major papers to make them aware of how our "allies" look and looked at us. You can have Uruzgan and conquer it with your CSI-Miami SUV's. Good luck, g.dspeed and may g.d help you live, you poor bastards. Signing off in great disgust, V." I'm afraid David Axe has just given some people what they in a way were glad to find. Although one may argue that if not in Axe's article, they would have found something else to get spectacularly infuriated by elsewhere then.


Bob said...

Interesting piece, I haven't heard anything (aside from the telegraaf's comment) about staying back at base. Some MP's even argued that these bombings show that it means that the work being done is successfull there and the taliban wants to sabotage this.

The current battlegroup commander has shifted focus from reconstruction to providing security though. Dictating where the patrols go and thus where the PRT can go. Chora appears to be the focal point of the PRT nowadays. At least most ministry of defence weekly updates mention sjura's taking place to help the people over there.

To be honest, I think the major problem is the lack of troops in especially southern Afghanistan. Compared to other theatres like Iraq and previously Bosnia, the amount of troops in Afghanistan falls short.

Péter MARTON said...

Hi, Bob.
Yeah, just like you, I'm also trying not to jump to conclisions given how so far I've seen only that single source saying TFU is largely staying back at the base nowadays.
It would be a bit of a setback indeed, if that was really the case, given how there was supposedly the switch by the battlegroup to the amoeba strategy recently. (I always argued on this site, though, that given how the Dutch military suffers from being gravely underfinanced these days, and is forced to sell all sorts of things (F-16s, Leopards etc.), they probably haven't become that much more active. Even if they have certainly been under much pressure to do so, given that the situation in Uruzgan and the Dutch strategy there obviously impacts the situation in Helmand and Kandahar.