Not on my watch

A new guard contingent of 45 Slovak troops left in early September for Tarin Kowt, the capital of the southern Uruzghan province about 150 kilometers north of Kandahar, where Slovakia already has some 70 troops. Their assignment will be to look after 1,200 Dutch men and women in Camp Holland.

(Source: Tom Nicholson)

A new guard contingent of 45 Slovak troops left in early September for Tarin Kowt, the capital of the southern Uruzghan province about 150 kilometers north of Kandahar, where Slovakia already has some 70 troops. Their assignment will be to look after 1,200 Dutch men and women in Camp Holland.

General Pavol Macko, the deputy commander of Slovakia’s ground forces, said that the assignment was “challenging” and would put the Slovak troops in the front line of defense at the camp. “There are no safe missions in Afghanistan for soldiers, because you are a target,” he said following talks in Bratislava on September 9 with Colonel Richard van Harskamp, who until the end of August was the commander of the Dutch forces in Uruzghan.

According to casualty statistics and media reports, the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly. In May 2008, the number of Western casualties in Afghanistan was higher than those in Iraq for the first time since operations began there. Suicide bombings were up 26% in 2007 over 2006, and 600% over 2005, while Taliban attacks increased fourfold over the same period.
However, Macko and Van Harskamp disputed this picture, and ascribed the increasing casualties to a more aggressive approach by the 70,000 troops from 40 nations under the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) that are operating in Afghanistan. “We are going after the Taliban and other insurgents and pushing them out,” Macko said. “The tide has turned, and the losses are increasing because we are on the offensive.”

Van Harskamp said that while the Slovak soldiers would have a heavy responsibility, they would at the same time be well protected, and that Camp Holland was relatively safe.

“We’ve never had even indirect fire on Camp Holland,” he said. “But the mission is very demanding, and one of the greatest challenges for the Slovak troops will be staying alert.”

SPEX spoke with Van Harskamp at the Slovak Defense Ministry in early September, as the new Slovak unit prepared to depart.

US General David McKiernan, the commander of the UN-sanctioned ISAF forces in Afghanistan, said last week that "we are waging a war" in Afghanistan. Do you agree with his assessment?

It's my gut feeling, and this was the feeling we had on the ground there, that on the home front there is not the sense of urgency or seriousness about what we're doing out there. I think he used that terminology, that we are at war, to wake people up. But if you look at Uruzghan province [in the south of Afghanistan, where 1,650 Dutch troops are stationed - ed. note], during the time we were there, yes, we had people killed, through IEDs [Improvised Explosive Device - ed. note], yes, we had firefights, yes, we had troops in contact. But personally I would refrain from using the word 'war'.

Why? Wouldn't it give people a better idea of what is really happening?

Because the term 'war' means full-fledged military engagement, huge-scale casualties and destruction. And that's definitely not the case in Afghanistan.

In May 2008, combat casualties among Western troops in Afghanistan exceeded casualties in Iraq for the first time since operations began there, and the casualty numbers in the two countries for 2008 as a whole are almost identical. Isn't the political reluctance in Europe to use the term 'war' blinding people to the military reality?

I can only speak for the Netherlands, where there is absolute transparency in talking about operations in Afghanistan. We have no secrets about what we do and what the costs are. If it takes heavy weapons and large-scale operations, we say so. Our experience is that openness towards parliament and our own people about what we're doing is the key to counter-insurgency operations, because it's already a shadowy environment that we're working in.

ISAF involves about 70,000 troops from 40 countries. People in the Netherlands may have full information about the situation in Afghanistan, but if other countries are withholding troops because they don't know how serious the situation is, doesn't that get a little frustrating for the soldiers that are doing the heavy fighting? In Slovakia, for instance, the government wanted guarantees that its soldiers would be safe before moving them south.

It is an issue, and it's one you have to deal with on all levels of operations, both at the ministerial level, and at the tactical level on the ground. Let there be no misunderstanding, we are putting the lives of 1,200 men and women who are living in Camp Holland into the hands of Slovak soldiers, who will be taking care of this camp. That's more than doing just guard duties - if we have events that generate massive casualties, like a plane crash or a direct attack on the camp, then we will be reliant on Slovak forces. But at the same time, having the Slovaks take guard duty will free up our forces to conduct operations outside the wire, in the green, engaging either the Taliban or the key insurgence leaders in either a kinetic or non-kinetic way, in order to provide the pre-requisites for the local Afghan government to extend its influence. That's something that locals there have never known.

What kind of situation will the Slovak troops be going into?

They will be stationed on Camp Holland, sleeping in armored containers, which are bomb-proof. We put a huge effort into providing them for force-protection reasons, even though we have never had even any indirect fire on Camp Holland. So they’re very well protected. As for their daily work, they’ll have to get used to the climatic challenges. It’s extremely hot and dry, and if they deploy for six months, they’ll be there through the winter, which is extremely hold. It’s very challenging, and another challenge will be for them to stay sharp.

Is the security situation getting dramatically worse, as the media reports?

Imagine what it’s like in Uruzgan – 30 years of violence, no outside soldiers, and all of a sudden foreign troops arrive saying ‘we’ll make everything better, just trust us’. And guess what? Things do get better. Two years ago, Tarin Kowt [the capital of Uruzgan province – ed. note] was dark as a pit at night. Now there are lights everywhere, people are moving around, and the economy is flourishing, even by European standards. People all over have access to health care and clean water, so less babies are dying of diarrhea. All because of the foreign soldiers in Tarin Kowt. So what do you think the average self-interested Afghan will tell ISAF pollsters? That everything is safe? No, he’s afraid that if he says it’s safe, we will consider our work done, and we will pack up and leave. He definitely doesn’t want that.

But casualty numbers tell their own story, one that has nothing to do with polls…
I can only speak about Uruzgan. We have certainly had casualties, the last ones were two days ago due to an IED. Sure, it’s not as safe as going out for a beer in Bratislava at night. But that’s why you send in the military. That’s our job. It happens every time a nation decides to send its military somewhere else for other than humanitarian reasons. People get killed.

How much of the violence is due to local drug lords and the demands of their business?

Uruzgan is a rural society, and you’ll definitely see a spring offensive that is due to the fact that all the poppies have been planted, and the seasonal workers figure that if they’re not working, they might as well go for a good fight. Then comes the harvest season in April and May, when there is no fighting because everyone is picking poppies. The summer may be hot, but you’ll again see fighting flare up because at this point the opium is being processed. That’s what it’s like – it makes seasonal workers out of us as well.

Next month, all US forces in Afghanistan will ­be transferred under the command of ISAF leader David McKiernan, including the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) forces that until now have operated independently. Has it been difficult basically having two Western armies in the field, each under different leadership?

It has been difficult, because you have forces in your area that are not under your command. You have to synchronize your operations, but in the end they do not answer to you. That’s definite by definition, in terms of cooperation and coordination.

One of the largest operations that has been undertaken recently in Afghanistan was a convoy of 200 vehicles that drove straight through Taliban territory. Its objective was a civilian one, however – transporting a giant turbine to an electricity station to bring power to more farmers, which in turn would make wheat as viable a crop as poppies. Has it been difficult for the troops to adjust to the idea of going into combat with non-military goals?

A US Marine general said recently that we’re now into the era of the three-block war. That on a single mission, at the same time and in the same environment and with the same unit, you’ll provide humanitarian aid at the same time as you are engaging in full combat. But that’s how our soldiers are trained now.

Everything that will help make the lives of ordinary Afghans better is important. People have nothing there. You’re not rebuilding a nation, you’re building a nation.

A US defense department document calls for 20,000 more troops to be sent to Afghanistan by 2011, which will make a round decade since the beginning of operations with no end in sight. If the campaign had been handled differently at the beginning, could the current level of combat been avoided?

In hindsight you could argue that a lot of things could have been done differently – a larger deployment from the beginning, NATO involved from 2002 – but that wasn’t the political reality, and such discussions are now fruitless. We’re at where we’re at.

The British army that invaded Afghanistan in the 19th century was completely wiped out as it tried to retreat, and the Soviets didn’t fare much better in the 1980s. What makes you think the fate of ISAF will be different?

Because the British and the Russians went in to rule Afghanistan themselves, and we’re not there to rule. We’re there to get the legally elected government up and running, and then leave. The sooner the better. That’s the message we’re giving to the Afghans – it’s your country, it’s your responsibility, but if you want to make a shit hole out of it – not on my watch.

General Pavol Macko, the deputy commander of Slovakia’s ground forces, was in Afghanistan from August 2007 to February 2008 with ISAF headquarters, as the director of operations for the troops of 38 countries under the NATO-led mission, which involved coordination with ISAF, OEF and local Afghan forces.

Is the situation getting dramatically worse?

I don’t think it is, even though the perception in North America and Europe is the reverse. When I started serving in Afghanistan, every month we had a new record in events and incidents. There are a number of explanations for the current statistics. The absolute numbers look higher, but the nature of these events is changing. Some are due to planned activities by the Taliban or other rebel groups. But there has also been a sharp rise in events that arise from the fact that we have begun to be more active. We aren’t sitting in camp, because you can’t bring security to Afghanistan from camp. The population needs to feel your presence. So I don’t agree that the security situation is getting worse overall. We have more troops than we had in 2006. NATO only took control of the country in the fall of that year, and that’s a very short a time given the size of the country.

Counter-insurgence operations require three basic things. First, you have to gain control, which means you have to go into the terrain, you can’t just sit in camp. Then you have to suppress the bad guys who are the source of the instability and the threats. You also have to be capable of maintaining control, which means to have to create conditions for stability, you can’t just go in and then leave. Finally, you have to support development. The population has to feel that their situation is improving. For these reasons, we are being more active, and as a result the losses are increasing. Before, the losses arose when they came after us. Now, we are going after them and pushing them out. So the tide has turned, and the losses are increasing because we are on the offensive.

But Afghanistan is still a more dangerous place than it was a few years ago, no? Suicide bombings were up 26% in 2007 over 2006, and 600% over 2005, while Taliban attacks increased fourfold over the same period…

Every security situation has its own specific level. Of course, Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and the domestic security forces are not qualified to create the conditions necessary for security. But if you look at the last evaluation of the Afghanistan Compact [a non-binding political agreement in 2006 between the international community and Afghanistan to cooperate on building peace and democracy – ed. note] at the Paris Conference [June 12, 2008], and you compare it to 2003, when people first started talking about an Afghanistan Compact, or 2005, when the first goals were set, there has been clear progress. If the environment were not more secure, if economic conditions had not been created and the infrastructure improved, if more children weren’t going to school and if health care weren’t more accessible, the situation would not have improved. The key is how patient we are, and how effective we are – how quickly the international community expects the changes to take place, and at what cost, as well as what the Afghans themselves expect.

As of June 1, Defense Minister Baška increased danger pay for Slovak soldiers serving in high-risk environments like Afghanistan to 800 euros a month, whereas soldiers on a more peaceful mission like Cyprus will get 200 euros. Has this helped morale?

I think all members of the Slovak armed forces welcomed the increase, because it expresses the differences in the deployment and the responsibility. Our soldiers are off to Camp Holland, and they will be the front line in that camp’s defenses, responsible for everybody’s safety. The situation in Afghanistan is much different from that in Cyprus, which is why it is totally appropriate that they will be financially compensated. All our missions are important, but Afghanistan is the priority and is the most difficult and complex, and this increase is recognition of that fact. It will be added motivation.

Yesterday, a new guard contingent of 45 Slovak troops left for Tarin Kowt, the capital of the southern Uruzgan province about 150 kilometers north of the rest of Slovakia’s 200 troops in Kandahar, to look after 1,200 Dutch men and women in Camp Holland. Are the Slovak troops a little disappointed as soldiers to be on guard duty and not outside the wire engaging the enemy?

It’s all about progress over time. There are no safe missions in Afghanistan for soldiers, because you are a target, and the legally elected government is not able to sustain itself. It needs support not just from foreign troops but also from international organizations like the UN and the 3,000 NGOs that operate in Afghanistan today. They are targets too, although soldiers will always bear the brunt. So I think the mission the Slovak troops will be taking on is a challenging one, and I don’t want to get into the issue of whether it is a good enough one for them or not. Offensive operations are not the solution to the Afghan conflict. We can’t say we are contributing less to the Afghan mission because we are not contributing fighters. Some of our soldiers want it, and we feel ourselves that sooner or later we will have to transition to offensive operations. But it’s not about looking for a conflict so we can get involved, any more than firemen go around looking for fires so they can go into action.

From the professional perspective, we have to work our way towards offensive deployments. We have to mature. We are still a young country within NATO. Our armed forces are at a certain stage of development. Individually we are capable of taking on very important assignments, and you can be sure that NATO would not have entrusted their operations post in Afghanistan to a Slovak soldier if they had not been confident he could manage it. It wasn’t just me, it was also my deputy operations leaders, lieutenant colonels who were in the room and had to decide within minutes whether to provide air support or not, or what else to do. We already have those kinds of officers. But deploying a unit in the field requires preparation, and not just in terms of material and physical and mental fitness: society itself has to be prepared.­

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