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Returning to Afghanistan

By Arnon Grunberg

While publishers, agents and some authors were heading for Frankfurt for the annual book fair I decided to return to Afghanistan—or to be more precise Oruzgan, a small province in the south—where some 1,600 Dutch soldiers are trying to rebuild the country.

A year ago I stayed at Kandahar Air Field, a big military base near the city of Kandahar. Occasionally at night the base was attacked with small rockets, but you got used to it. I wasn't allowed to leave the camp—being embedded has its restrictions. The official reason was that Dutch troops weren't patrolling the camp's surroundings. That job was left to the Canadian troops.

The atmosphere among the officers was still upbeat. Many, especially the more idealistic ones, were convinced that they would be able to change things for the better in Afghanistan.

A year and two months later, and few hundred miles north of Kandahar on a base near the capital of Oruzgan, Tarin Kowt, not much is left of the original optimism.

That there is war in Afghanistan and that the NATO might not be on the winning side of this war is something that many officers now acknowledge.

More than once I have heard the phrase, íWe are moderately pessimistic about the progress we are making here.ë

And a journalist working for the Independent who has been living in Kabul for the last two years—I share a room with him here at the base—told me that the security in Kabul is deteriorating fast.

So the question is once again: why are we in Afghanistan?

The war in Iraq is as unpopular as a war can be, but support for the war in Afghanistan in countries as the UK and the US is still high. (Support for the war in Afghanistan in the Netherlands as at its best lukewarm.)

Having been outside the base now for four consecutive days, and having witnessed the work of the Provincial Construction Team and having witnessed one firefight with the enemy, which we refer to for practical reasons as Taliban, it's fair to say that the progress we are making here in stabilizing Oruzgan is close to zero.

I should not make judgments on a whole country based on experiences in one province. But based on conversations with translators and other NATO-troops, I think it's fair to say that we are losing the war in Afghanistan.

Or as a Dutch officer would put it, íI'm moderately pessimistic.ë

Published Oct 20, 2007   Copyright 2007 Arnon Grunberg

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