Almost 20 years in Afghanistan: “I think we might have been too ambitious”

What started with the provision of frigates and F-16s in 2002 became a nearly twenty year Dutch presence in Afghanistan. Now that all foreign troops will leave the country before 11 September 2021, the question remains as to what the Dutch contribution has made.

Demissionary Minister Bijleveld of Defence is clear: the mission has been successful. Of course not everything is settled now, but the country is no longer a base for terrorists who commit attacks in our capitals, she said Thursday in the CCEIT Radio 1 News.

‘Drip on glowing plate’

The Dutch military do not all think the same about this. Many are proud of their contribution, but some of them question the results of the combat mission in Uruzgan and the police training mission in Kunduz.

Lieutenant Colonel Gwenda Nielen served twice in Afghanistan and participated in both missions. In Uruzgan, I had the idea that we were doing something good and that I was able to contribute myself. But that training mission in Kunduz, I do have the feeling that it was a drop on the glowing plate. And I think many soldiers agree with that.

Nielen also experienced many beautiful things, even the moment we were shot at:

Military like Nielen are not alone in this criticism. At the beginning of last year, for example, a report on the Kunduz mission appeared, concluding that a too positive picture of the progress of the police training mission has been outlined.


Researchers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that fewer Afghan agents have been trained than reported, and that certificates have been unjustly issued to agents. All of this in order not to lose political support for the mission, which was already small.

Using a metaphor, veteran Nielen explains that the Kunduz mission was unlikely to succeed anyway. If you train an army to remove weeds, but do nothing about the root, it keeps growing back. In her view, a comprehensive approach is needed to address the underlying problems.

There are two perspectives to look at the results of the combat mission in Uruzgan, says journalist and Afghanistan-expert Bette Dam. From defense and from the Afghans.

Defense commanders themselves say: with trial and error, we saw that the enemy was much more complex than we thought and that there was more to talk to the Afghans. On the spot you could conclude that the ideological war did not exist and that the struggle was mainly between powerful families.

The Dutch saw them as a dairy cow for their own interests, explains Dam. They could indicate where the Taliban were supposedly living, and then the military went for it. The DOD got that after a while, but there have been a lot of deaths.

The Afghans in turn know that the Dutch are responsible for important ‘hardware’ in Uruzgan, says Dam. Defense created a paved road between the provincial capital Tarin Kowt and Chora, the construction of a technical school for boys and the construction of a local airfield with a rocket resistant roof.

But now people are sitting there with pinched buttocks. With the dominant military approach, many enemies have been created, which the Afghans now have to deal with. Afghan soldiers are fighting around Tarin Kowt against the Taliban. One night there are heavy bombing, and the other night it‘s quiet. It’s an anxious, unstable situation. Guys who have worked for Westerners want to flee, said the journalist.

The Dutch efforts fall away in the bigger picture we have participated in: the war on terror. That is the Afghan side of the story.

‘Too ambition’

According to Lieutenant Colonel Nielen, results were indeed achieved in Uruzgan. In her view, this was also possible because of the broad approach that was lacking in the Kunduz mission.

I think maybe we were a little too ambitious. In Uruzgan, we could make a difference locally, but change an entire country like that? If your ambition is to introduce democracy in a country then it takes more than military intervention.


During the missions in Afghanistan, 25 Dutch soldiers are being deserved. A second extension of the mission arose so much political discussion that it led to the fall of Cabinet-Balkenende IV in 2010. With the police training mission in Kunduz, the requested support could be provided to the US in another way.

Or could that make a difference? That‘s hard to say. After the mission, there was fierce fighting at Kunduz. I don’t know how many trained Afghan agents are still alive, says Dam.

The direct contacts between the Dutch and Afghans, which Dam witnessed when shetraining mission, she calls them valuable. There military could see progress among the population and trainees.

No appointments

How things continue in Afghanistan after the departure of all foreign troops is unclear. Last year, the US and the Taliban concluded a historic agreement to put an end to the battle. The Taliban talks about peace with the Afghan government, but that process is trifling.

Demissionary Minister Bijleveld admitted that an uncertain period is coming for the country: There have been no agreements between the Afghan government and the Taliban. We have to be realistic: the departure can have an impact on the results achieved.