By Lennert Breuker
The Dutch cabinet is currently considering participation in a new mission in Afghanistan. Dutch media are reporting that this time the mission would entail the sending of a contingent of police officers – approximately 350 – to serve as trainers for the Afghan police forces. Whether the cabinet will succeed in generating sufficient political support for the mission is still unclear. A majority in parliament does not support further participation in combat missions, and would only be open to initiatives aimed at reconstruction efforts. It is thus likely that the trainings mission will be framed in terms of reconstructing part of the executive branch essential for a functioning government, namely the police. Which indeed comes across as a legitimate goal.
Such a portrayal of the mission might obscure the fact that the Dutch will be asked to co-operate with a US policy worth a critical scrutiny at the least, as a recently published opinion of political activist Sietse Bosgra in a major daily journal suggested.
According to Bosgra, the mission aim is not to train regular police forces, but para-military police. Also referred to as ‘little soldiers’: uneducated, young Afghan men who will be sent on police/combat missions under-equipped and under-trained.
Bosgra explains that US pressure on the Dutch to participate stems from a recent strategical change in the way the war in Afghanistan is conducted. He claims that with Obama as new president, it was decided to decrease the amount of civilian casualties in order to decrease the steady flow of Afghans joining up with the Taliban. This meant less bombardments and a more discriminate and reserved course of action in ground operations. This policy was welcomed by the European NATO allies, who were never too comfortable with the ‘violent’ way of conducting military operations by the US.
But the replacement of general McChrystal with general Petraeus meant a reversal of this policy. Air strikes were more than tripled and there has been a fivefold increase in so-called night raids. The latter term denotes a practice of encircling Afghan homes at nighttime, forcing the residents at gunpoint to come out, their houses being raided and the male residents being interrogated – according to Bosgra all in a violent fashion – something that is corroborated in various other publications. Often there will be a helicopter to shoot down down persons who decide to flee.
Bosgra presents some disturbing figures: during last autumn 1572 night raids were conducted over a 90 day period, resulting in 2700 men and ‘older ‘sons being sent to detention camps and 1100 civilian casualties.
Inflamed Afghan sentiments pushed Karzai to request a cessation of the practice of night raids on 14 November. Something the US was apparently not prepared to do, as they (Petraeus) convinced Karzai in a personal conversation not to repeat his request at the major NATO convention at Lisbon. Where his message would undoubtedly have been received with more support.
Bosgra asserts that US pressure on the Dutch cabinet to train Afghan police forces is directly linked to the considerably more violent approach the US military has taken under Petraeus. He states that the US government aims to expand the Afghan police forces from 100.000 to 134.000 in 2011. To this end the training period will be shortened from 8 to 6 weeks, much to the horror of the European allies.
The ‘little soldiers’ are not only often deployed at night raids, but also at heavy engagements with the Taliban and at isolated places that have just been (re)captured. They do so without armored vehicles, often without helmets or bullet proof vests, resulting in a casualty rate three times higher than regular Afghan soldiers. US general Caldwell confirms that 47 % defects after their training, and it is assumed that many join up with the Taliban, or sell their weapons to them.
This account is disconcerting for several reasons. Not only would the Dutch government co-operate with a policy of a questionable ethical nature by producing a cheap army to face situations for which it is neither adequately trained nor equipped. It would also assist the implementation of a policy which will further alienate the Afghan people from the NATO forces by crude and indiscriminate military actions and a high amount of civilian casualties. This would be in stark contrast with the relative success the Dutch military achieved in containing violence in the province of Uruzgan by marking diplomacy and development as key components in a counterinsurgency strategy, in stead of sheer military power.
Moreover, the resort to ‘little soldiers’ might even fuel the conflict in a way that humanitarian aid is often accused of. That is, the goal may be legitimate – providing humanitarian relief – but the result is plainly that many resources are taken by a warring faction which allows them to sustain their war efforts and thus to prolong the suffering that humanitarian aid seeks to mitigate. In a similar vein, the allied forces in Afghanistan are providing the Taliban with personnel and weapons by the huge defection rate of the ‘little soldiers’.
In addition, the current military attitude towards the war in Afghanistan and towards the Afghan people is uncomfortably reminiscent of how the US military conducted its business in South East Asia several decades ago. One would assume that the experiences in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia would have taught the US military that an increased civilian death toll by indiscriminate air strikes will drive the population into sympathy for and co-operation with the resistance. The bombing campaign in Cambodia is widely acknowledged as an essential condition for the exponential growth and subsequent success of the Khmer Rouge movement, whose recruitment efforts greatly benefited from the death and destruction reaped by American bombs. In combination with the poor quality of the regular Cambodian army, the numbers of which were tremendously inflated by the use of so-called ‘twenty-four-hour’ soldiers – cheap soldiers without proper training and equipment […] – the US backed Cambodian regime succumbed to the hugely expanded Khmer Rouge movement in a few years time.
If Bosgra’s account can be verified by members of parliament, the least we should expect is a very critical attitude of the opposition, and the last we should expect is an unconditional acceptance of the request in my view. However, parliament and cabinet have a very poor record if it comes to adopting a critical stance towards similar requests of the US. As the investigation of the Commission Davids on the decision-making process in relation to the Dutch support for the Iraq invasion revealed on 12 January 2010, the decision to support a clear violation of the UN Charter – to leave aside terminology as the crime of aggression for a moment – was agreed upon in about 45 minutes, without any subsequent critical debate.