Dutch Soldiers Implement Sys Admin Approach

Stephen DeAngelis

April 10, 2007

My colleague Tom Barnett has for years preached the need for a System Administration Force that helps win the peace after the military (which he calls the Leviathan Force) wins the war. We’re all familiar with the infamous Bush photo that shows him on the deck of a carrier in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished”. Five years into the war, the President admitted that photo op wasn’t a very good idea. The fact is, the military performed extremely well and won the war. They haven’t been able to secure the peace, primarily because there was no plan for doing so and you simply can’t play catch-up once the moment is lost. C.J. Chivers, writing in the New York Times, reports that Dutch soldiers are behaving much more like Barnett’s Sys Admin Force than a Leviathan Force [“Dutch Soldiers Stress Restraint in Afghanistan,” 6 April 2007]. I knew that Tom would post a blog on this so I waited for him to write before posting my own comments [We can learn from Dutch SysAdmin]. Chivers begins his piece discussing a group of Dutch infantryman operating in the hostile Baluchi Valley. It is an area controlled by the Taliban and is opposed to the central government. Sounds like a combat zone and in many ways it is.

“Whenever they push farther, the soldiers said, they swiftly come under fire from rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. ‘The whole valley is pretty much hostile,’ said one, a machine gunner.”

The surprise is how this “fighting force” reacts to such attacks:

“Rather than advancing for reconnaissance or to attack, the Dutch soldiers pulled back to a safer village. ‘We’re not here to fight the Taliban,’ said the Dutch commander, Col. Hans van Griensven, at a recent staff meeting. ‘We’re here to make the Taliban irrelevant.’ … Here in Uruzgan Province, where the Taliban operate openly, a Dutch-led task force has mostly shunned combat. Its counterinsurgency tactics emphasize efforts to improve Afghan living conditions and self-governance, rather than hunting the Taliban’s fighters. Bloodshed is out. Reconstruction, mentoring and diplomacy are in.”

Tom’s ideas have often met with skepticism and so have the Dutch troops. According to Chivers:

“American military officials have expressed unease about the Dutch method, warning that if the Taliban are not kept under military pressure in Uruzgan, they will use the province as a haven and project their insurgency into neighboring provinces.”

The Dutch forces believe that the Taliban will only obtain a haven if the local population doesn’t have anything to lose (and maybe something to gain) by having the Taliban among them. They believe that stressing military action resulting in death and destruction leads to hopelessness and withdrawal. It is that condition, the Dutch believe, that establishes the conditions that can be exploited by the Taliban.

“The Dutch counter that construction projects and consistent political and social support will lure the population from the Taliban, allowing the central and provincial governments to expand their authority over the long term. Insurgency and counterinsurgency tactics have long been subjects of intensive tinkering and debate, as military and police forces from different nations, and even different units within nations, have chosen conflicting approaches. The Dutch-led force of about 2,000 soldiers has adopted what counterinsurgency theorists call the “oil spot” approach. Under this tactic, it concentrates efforts in less hostile areas, especially a basin around Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital, which overlaps an economic development zone designated by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. The central idea is that if foreign military forces show restraint and respect, and help the local government to govern, then these areas will expand, slowly but persistently, like an oil stain across a shirt. As they grow, the theory says, the Taliban’s standing will decline.”

Although the Dutch have chosen to implement a Sys Admin role, they understand that without a secure environment their approach could not be successfully implemented.

“To date, the Dutch, aided by American soldiers and contractors who train Afghan police officers and soldiers, have helped Afghan units to coordinate security and build police posts.”

Tom and I have always stressed that peace begins with security — it is sustained by prosperity. The Dutch rely on the Americans and Afghans for the security and work with others to foster prosperity.

“They have sent teams of specialists and Australian engineers to choose development projects and plan them with village leaders. They have built or repaired schools, mosques, police garrisons, courtrooms and a hospital inside the more secure areas. A bridge and a police training center are under construction or in design. They also have opened a trade school that teaches Afghan laborers basic job skills, including carpentry and generator repair. To encourage expansion of the government’s influence, the Dutch infantry conducts patrols around the secure zones, and reconstruction teams try to identify future projects and allies who can extend the ring of influence. ‘Inside the inner ring, we try to do a lot of long-lasting development projects,’ said Lt. Col. Gert-Jan Kooij, the task force’s operations officer. ‘It’s not like it is 100 percent safe there. It never is. But it’s permissive at least. And by showing that we have projects in the permissive areas, we hope the people in other areas will see that it gets better when they work with their government.’ Such counterinsurgency tactics are not new; they are only back in vogue, with a new generation of officers drawing lessons from past military operations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo, Vietnam and elsewhere. Similar tactics have reappeared in American units in Iraq, as both the Army and the Marine Corps have been rewriting doctrine along the same lines. But the Dutch have embraced the theory more fully than most, to the point that most Dutch units now take extraordinary steps to avoid military escalation and risks of damage to property or harm to civilians. (When armored vehicles damaged a grove of mulberry trees, a captain came by the next day to negotiate a compensation payment for the farmers.)”

The billion dollar question, however, is whether this approach really works. There are skeptics:

“Some participants openly worry that the formula is out of balance, undermined by too great a reluctance to use force. Large areas of Uruzgan remain Taliban havens. The local government, plagued by corruption, remains so weak that it does not yet have a significant program against soaring poppy production, which helps underwrite the insurgency. One Afghan interpreter who works with the Dutch said their approach was passive. ‘The Dutch, if the fight starts, they run inside their vehicles every time,’ said the interpreter, who asked that his name be withheld because he risked losing his job. ‘They say, “We came for peace, not to fight.” And I say, “If you don’t fight, you cannot have peace in Afghanistan.”‘ Uruzgan is also clearly not as safe as casualty statistics suggest. Neither the United Nations nor any foreign aid organizations work here, because they judge the province too dangerous. The insurgents often plant bombs and conduct ambushes, although so far the bombs have not been as powerful as those in Iraq, and Afghan marksmanship has often been poor.”

The Dutch admit their approach takes patience (which can be frustrating for those who want to see faster change), but they insist it is working:

“Dutch officers … say the approach has yielded promising results here. Sometimes villagers have warned them of ambushes or roadside bombs, and in several villages the Dutch are rarely attacked. Since the task force began operations last August, it has not suffered a combat fatality. Colonel van Griensven also said the task force had developed underground contacts in Taliban-controlled regions. ‘If you look at what we have done in eight months, I am optimistic,’ he said. ‘We have a good start with the basics.’ He added that he could deploy his units on sweeps, searches and raids, and chase the Taliban away. But each time after his infantry left an area, he said, the Taliban would simply move back in.”

The key to success is balance. The Dutch believe they are balancing the destructive military activities being pursued by others. Development cannot proceed without security and security cannot be sustained without development. Tom Barnett argues that it is difficult for a single force to provide balance because it is nearly impossible to properly train soldiers in the art of war on the one hand and in the art of development on the other. There are soldier statesmen who try to achieve the right balance in insurgency situations, but it is difficult. A Sys Admin force working side-by-side with a Leviathan Force helps provide the balance that fosters success. We think the military is coming to understand that concept and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the future.