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

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The ink blot, the blanket, and the domestic perspective

MStFB Uruzgan Series update
The domestic political debate in the Netherlands, on whether the Dutch mission in Uruzgan should be extended beyond August 1, 2008, in its current form, is intensifying, and, as always, there are mixed signals coming regarding what may eventually be the decision when the time for it comes in October.
This article says at one point:
"Dr Nelson (Australia's defence minister - P.M.) said yesterday the Dutch were discussing the possibility of finding other NATO partners to replace any troops they withdraw from Tarin Kowt."
Another article comes from Hans de Vreij, Radio Netherlands' security analyst.
"The leftwing opposition parties in the Netherlands already lashed out against the current Dutch activities in Uruzgan this week, likening them to 'death squads' out to kill more civilians than insurgents. " De Vreij, whom I have quoted before on this blog, goes on to throw in against this that: "But as one 'operator' of the secretive Dutch Special Forces said in a rare television interview last year: 'It's of little use to build a school when one week later, you can recover the remains of the children from its ruins'." (The latter quote is from Viktor Franke's documentary '09:11 Zulu', I believe.)
The most amazing thing to read in that latter article, however, was another couple of sentences: "last weekend, the commander of the Dutch Armed Forces, General Dick Berlijn, mentioned Indonesia and Ukraine as 'examples' of countries which could play a role in Uruzgan. However, the Defence Ministry has stressed no serious negotiations with those two countries have (yet?) taken place."
Anyway, getting back to the subject of the stupid talk of death squads, that, if it really was stated in the political debate underway, is simply ridiculous, regardless of context.
But this does remind me of that what I've recently come across looking at Wikipedia's article on ISAF. These Wikipedia articles are, as everyone knows, cross-editable, therefore their content may change entirely over time, but still something currently included in this particular article might be interesting to note. In the section 'ISAF and the illegal opium economy' it says: "ISAF's mandate does not include a pro-active role in fighting the illegal opium economy in Afghanistan. It plays an indirect role in sharing intelligence with the Afghan government, protecting Afghan poppy crop eradication units and helping coordinate and implement the country's counter narcotics policy. Dutch ISAF forces have, for example, used military force to protect eradication units that came under attack. The indirect role ISAF plays in helping the Afghan counter narcotic forces is problematic for NATO."
So the text quoted puts the limelight on Dutch troops in solo as forces that have given armed assistance to poppy eradication. That is not deserved, one could say, in a way. Whereas neither can I remember, nor can I Google up an incident where Canadian or British troops would have ended up giving armed assistance (not merely escort) to AEF eradication teams, I do know for sure that the Dutch didn't at all like the idea of giving any assistance to the AEF in April when those forces, together with U.S. security contractor DynCorp's men, went to Uruzgan to do eradication there. It was only when the AEF/DynCorp formation, and the ANP with them, got into serious trouble on their second day at work in the province that close air support was needed by them, on that one occasion. "The Dutch had dispatched an Apache helicopter to destroy the abandoned pickup with a Hellfire missile," this is the only sentence referring to the Dutch involvement in the fighting during that incident in an article you may read here (page 6 of a ten-page article in The New Yorker).
Nevertheless I do think this weird, albeit in a way true, statement on the Dutch, is indicative of the advantages and the disadvantages for the Netherlands of the location of their mission. The terrain in Uruzgan makes it very difficult to push out from the ink blot areas, while it also makes it difficult to keep those ink blots supplied with whatever is needed (as well as to keep Dutch troops supplied). The road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt can be blocked or disrupted, convoys can be attacked etc. Task Force Uruzgan's superior weaponry can help one avoid a high number of casualties, but the terrain makes achieving results by doing any development work at all very difficult. And it seems like the public, as well as those parties that want to stir up public sentiment against the mission and capitalise on it, will always find something not to be pleased about. In this case critics' main problem is statedly that there's too much shooting and not enough humanitarian and development work.
In Kandahar or Helmand, the fighting takes on a "spread out the blanket/pull back the blanket" sort of cyclical character, with ISAF forces lacking the chance of a sustainable blanket coverage of a critical amount of territory but able to push out insurgents from any location of choice for an operation, while the terrain also allows for creating a selection of relatively stable but "infiltratable" ink blot areas where enough of a presence can be persistently maintained (regarding this, see an earlier post of mine on Helmand here, and an article on Kandahar province here).
In contrast, in Uruzgan one sees a much clearer distinction between insurgent-held and ISAF-controlled areas. The Taliban have spotters around on the mountaintops almost everywhere in Uruzgan, and some of the valleys in the province could rather be assaulted by horseback cavalry than by armoured cavalry. There are a lot of natural refuge areas that could only be cleared of insurgents at a high cost, and with a much greater number of troops than what's currently available. So the proverbial blanket cannot be laid out so easily in some direction all of a sudden, even temporarily (not to mention other, unrelated constraints affecting the Dutch strategy that I have written of before). That makes even poppy eradication units venturing into the fields out there come under fire much more easily than in other provinces, and thus they can draw an unwilling ISAF contingent into battle in the name of poppy eradication, as mentioned above. (It's good that eradication unit actually didn't push eradication that much, otherwise everybody might have been in for a lot more trouble.)
So while the Uruzgan mission theoretically gives one the opportunity to keep own casualties low, it is also very difficult to end up with a great success story there.

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