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Experiences of Dutch junior leadership in Uruzgan (Afghanistan) between 2006 and 2010


Photo: Dutch forces in Uruzgan. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Af Jos M. H. Groen, Senior Researcher at Stichting het Veteraneninstituut in Dorn, Netherlands.

‘Only the dead have seen the end of war’ (Plato)


The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan established by the United Nations Security Council on 20 December 2001 by Resolution 1386[1] as envisaged by the Bonn Agreement.[2]

Dutch military personnel were deployed to Afghanistan from the end of 2002. Several units were deployed and many individual staff officers also held posts at ISAF headquarters over the past few years. From November 2002 to August 2003 the Netherlands initially contributed multiple rotations of small, 250-strong units during ISAF phase 1. From July 2004 up to and including September 2006 Dutch military personnel were deployed to the northern Afghanistan province of Baghlan. During this period, several Dutch Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s) worked from the provincial capital of Pol-e Khomri. In autumn 2005 a battalion of the Netherlands Marine Corps with a field dressing station was send to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan to supervise the elections.

From 2006 onwards, the focus of the Dutch military shifted to southern Afghanistan. The Netherlands twice commanded the ISAF mission in the southern region from RC(S)[1] ISAF headquarters (from 1 November 2006 to 1 May 2007 and from 1 November 2008 to 1 November 2009). During these two periods, a substantial number of posts within the staff were held by Dutch personnel.

The main Dutch mission was conducted in the province of Uruzgan from the spring of 2006. Uruzgan is to the north of Helmand province, the main focus of the fighting in southern Afghanistan. This is the province in which Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, spent part of his youth and its geographical position means that the province acts as a strategic hinterland for Helmand.

Following initial, essential national logistic preparations, operation Task Force Uruzgan commenced on 1 August 2006. The original plan was for the Dutch to be the lead nation in Uruzgan for two years, but in the interim it was decided to extend this period by another two years. The Task Force Uruzgan mission ended on 1 August 2010 with the handover of military responsibilities to Task Force Stryker, a US unit.

During these four years, the Dutch conducted what was for them a major military mission in terms of personnel and (materiel) logistics. Throughout this period, operations by large units such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and the Battle Group within Task Force Uruzgan were supported by logistic units, engineers, artillery, signals units, medical personnel, SF-units, marines and the Royal Netherlands Air Force. In total, about 20.000 Dutch military personnel worked in Afghanistan over this period. The overall effort was much greater, as just as much work for this mission was conducted within the armed forces in the Netherlands: not just within the framework of preparations, but also with regard to sustainment of the mission.

The ISAF mission in Afghanistan, including the four years in Uruzgan, cost the Netherlands a total of one and a half billion euros. This is only the tangible cost, however. In their article ‘Burden sharing in Afghanistan’ Bogers et al. (2011) describe that over the period 2001 – 2010 on the dimension population size as of one million of the country’s population Denmark suffered the most casualties (6.0), followed by the UK (4.9), Canada (4.0), the USA (3.6), Norway (1.9), the Netherlands (1.1) and Australia (0.8). Over the four years in Uruzgan, twenty-four Dutch military personnel were killed during operations, casualty numbers the Dutch had not suffered since the Korea war in the 50’s. Nearly 140 personnel were wounded, many of them seriously.

The objective of the project

The original project aim was to record the experiences of these platoon commanders with a view to setting out the lessons learned and experiences gained for the benefit of the armed forces. This opinion and objective changed over the course of the project, however.

Initially, only infantry junior leaders were to be involved in the project. However, from the interviews and knowledge gained from operating in Afghanistan, it was realised that, in addition to (combat) experience, a great deal of other relevant knowledge and interesting aspects could be learned: the experiences of engineers, for instance, or junior leaders who had served in Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Operational Mentor Liaison Teams or Psyops Support Elements. It was decided that attention also ought to be paid to experiences of these colleagues.

On the other hand, it was realized that the stories told by these colleagues were significant in ways other than purely the operational aspect of lessons learned. The interviews made the breadth of these experiences clear: the personal and emotional perceptions and their effects. It is also important to record all these impressions for the benefit of society and future generations. By publishing these personal stories of the Afghanistan mission, there is a greater chance of appreciation and respect, which in addition to greater self-respect for veterans[2] can also aid coping with possibly serious incidents. The importance of this for veterans has been demonstrated in the coping process regarding previous missions to which the Netherlands had contributed. The objective of the project therefore broadened substantially: it was no longer simply a matter of recording factual experiences, but also themes such as personal perception, appreciation, recognition and coping. This information could only be obtained by conducting a qualitative study; this strategy ultimately led to a total of 23 in-depth interviews.


The interviews were analyzed through the open coding method (Boeije, 2005); this lead to the themes outlined in the result section. This section describes part of the themes that through open coding were identified for each phase in the chronology of the mission. For each period these themes are illustrated with a number of quotations.

Part I: Preparations for deployment

‘The goals and methods of educating young men on their way to becoming warriors are broadly similar at all times and places’ (Van Creveld, 2008).

Team building

Because of its expected positive effects one of the main aspects of the preparation period was team building. A meta-analysis (Salas et al., 2008) that examined the relationships between team training interventions and team functioning suggested these positive effects: team training can enhance team performance and is useful for improving cognitive outcomes, affective outcomes, teamwork processes and performance outcomes. French and Bell (1999) or Putko (2006) also stressed the importance of teambuilding.

All the platoon commanders who participated in this study devoted a great deal of time to this, as they recognised that a close-knit team would be essential to the mission. A unit which works together properly and operates like a well-oiled machine is generally better able to conduct the difficult tasks expected of it during a mission.

Faith in each other is very important and I tried to achieve this through teambuilding. It is essential here that you get to know your personnel and that they know you. I believe it is very important to invest in your personnel. I tried to get to know about everyone’s family circumstances during personal interviews. I would then know in future what they were talking about when they told me things about the situation at home. Or I would then be able to ask with genuine interest about how things are at home with the partner or the children.

This type of conversation and attention ensures closer mutual ties. When you invest in these mutual ties, work becomes much easier. I did so via personal chats or by organising all kinds of activities in an informal setting outside working hours. (Erik, Battle Group (BG) 5)

I found communications within the group very important. I therefore spent a great deal of time talking to the platoon. I told them what we had done and why. How actions had gone during an exercise and that everyone knew what each other’s contribution had been. I wanted everyone to be aware of the overall platoon picture. In doing so, I also tried to work on creating team spirit and faith in each other. I thought that teambuilding was very important and I deliberately devoted attention to this. (Stellan, BG 4)

Mental component

‘With psychological injuries accounting for between 10-50% of operational casualties, there is consistent evidence that adequate psychological preparation for deployments is a vital operational requisite. Beyond the psychological costs to soldiers, empirical results also indicate that the stressors found in military contexts can contribute to errors in judgment and performance, reducing operational effectiveness. Thus, the development of training programs that successfully prepares personnel for the psychological rigors of operations, in addition to the physical and technical demand, are important for operational effectiveness and maintaining the well-being of individual military personnel’ (Thompson and McCreary, 2006).

According to the Dutch military doctrine, military power comprises three components: conceptual, physical and mental. The mental component is a major part of preparation for a mission, not only for the above mentioned effects but as this component also contributes to the (intrinsic) motivation to carry out the assigned tasks during the mission. Several platoon commanders therefore included specific, mental training aspects in their preparations programme.

Mental training was very important to the platoon. We invested in this continuously. As a unit it is not just about things you do well or the skills you have. The key to success is mental attitude: the unit works best when people are in good condition in mental terms. (Maarten, Engineer)

Training the mental component was just as important. Just before deployment, in conjunction with the police I arranged for a number of police dogs, as I thought it was important to create a period of increased tension. I had arranged various interesting activities with dogs as a serious threat. The Deputy Platoon Commander and I had kept this a secret.

Everyone had a great and instructive day. The platoon cadre had seen enough to know how the men coped in stressful situations. On the basis of the individual responses, we had a great starting point for the evaluation, focused on our mission. Because that was the objective: what can you get out of this as a person and how might you be able to use this in a comparable situation in the near future? (Gerwin, BG 6)

For me, the priority was not purely group operations but also working on the mental aspect. One of the group commanders had spent time in the Special Forces. He had some great ideas about training the mental component. I ordered him to arrange an exercise for this. It was a fairly tough programme.

Before the physical component actually started, you could already see the effect of the first part of the programme on the men. Being in a stressful position for several hours is uncomfortable and unpleasant. In the evening, with the help of the sports instructors we conducted a programme on the climbing tower, including the ‘leap of faith’. We then had the men march for a while, followed by a good session in rowing boats. You could tell that some of the men really only got into their stride then, including one of the deputy group commanders. He had completely shut out everyone else and was only concerned with himself. We evaluated this with him afterwards. The exercise was an instructive experience, for the men and for us. As platoon cadre, we had gained thorough insight into the mental resilience of the men. (Rob, BG 4)


A great deal is often demanded of personnel during the preparation period. Within a relatively short period of time, military exercises are held in addition to participation in various courses, some of which are mandatory. Furthermore, a great deal of time is invested in important procedures, such as operating according to drills or gathering relevant information on the deployment area and future opponent. Consequently, there is rarely a good balance between work and leisure time during the preparation period for a mission. In military jargon, this is known as ‘a deployment before a deployment’. The feeling that the mission has already begun is also called ‘psychologically deployed’ by Pincus et al. (2001).

By setting priorities, in consultation with the company, we attempted to avoid having a deployment before a deployment. We regularly discussed this with each other. In spite of this, I think that the home front experienced the preparations for the deployment quite differently. As a group, we were doing something new, a project which had generated a lot of interest and this motivated us enormously. We felt we couldn’t do enough to prepare ourselves as thoroughly as possible for our tasks. The home front thought that we were away so much doing all kinds of activities that everyone within the group was told at some point that it was if the mission had already begun. (Dennis, Engineer)

This can be done differently. In the interviews, the important role fulfilled by the next level of command up is often cited, as can be seen from the following quotation:

Almost everyone, including our commander, had indicated that they did not wish to create a deployment before a deployment. The commander ensured that there was sufficient off duty time to go home. He realised that he could fill the entire five months with all kinds of exercises and lessons, but that he wouldn’t gain anything by that. I did not therefore experience the preparation period as tough and busy. (Dennis, Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT))

Part II: The mission


At the times of year when temperatures in Uruzgan were the hottest, an acclimatisation programme was held in Minhad (United Arab Emirates). Delves et al. (2007) evaluated the operational acclimatisation during deployment to a hot-dry environment and found direct evidence of the positive effects in all physiological variables.

The journey then continued to Uruzgan, where the Handover-Takeover period (HOTO) with their predecessors was initiated. The relevance of a thorough HOTO is emphasized by Kilcullen (2006) and it should be a face-to-face in situ HOTO to be effective (Ali, 2011).

We flew first to Minhad and underwent an acclimatisation programme there. It was very hot and incredibly humid. Temperatures sometimes reached 630 Celsius (1450Fahrenheit) with 97% humidity. I thought I would go mad, but luckily the programme was well thought-out. The balance between work and relaxation was fine and was increased over the week. I noticed that my body responded well. (Geert, Psyops)

Together with my Deputy Platoon Commander and other platoon cadre I left one week ahead of the platoon. We first spent a week acclimatising in Minhad. That was well-organised. We then left for Camp Holland. We went to Chora for a week with the platoon cadre, to the White Compound. Following a brief introduction, we patrolled the region every day. The patrols were well-prepared by our predecessors. The platoon cadre and I were therefore given a good idea of the region.

The handover went smoothly. The HOTO did not just focus on the region. The group commanders (GPCs) were able to consult thoroughly with their counterparts at the same level. We also made time to discuss all the other tasks and operations at the White compound. This was also well-prepared. (Barry, BG 7)

In general, everyone was well cared for over the four years. There was almost always a well-prepared programme, which included plenty of time for sharing experiences and conducting joint patrols. What was noticeable was the heavy physical and mental effect on predecessors due to the high operational pace of the mission.

My predecessors were clearly exhausted and looking forward to the end of the mission. They had experienced a tough deployment. I saw that in the tired faces of my colleagues and I got the sense that they saw us as saviours. (Dennis, Engineer)

I was met by a Deputy Platoon Commander with huge bags under his eyes, who had given a final salute to his PC two weeks previously. (Stellan, BG 4)

I noticed that my predecessors had had a very tough time. They were happy that their deployment had come to an end. (Dennis, OMLT)

One of the interviewees indicated that he had also looked forward to the end of the mission.

At the end of my deployment I had virtually no energy to look after my successors. I had already seen nearly three-quarters of the company depart and in my head I was already on the way home. I found that very tough. (Erik, BG 3)

The takeover

According to Kilcullen (2006) early successes will have a positive effect for the rest of the tour. A positive effect with respect to creating confidence among the personnel can therefore be achieved by having a unit accustom itself gradually to its new operational environment during its first independent operational task, at least if this is possible after the HOTO.

We had a calm operational build-up. The company had thought it through properly. We started, for instance, with minor operational tasks during the day. Later, we also conducted night patrols. My first assignment was a fairly simple task lasting a half day. We had to move through the desert to a high ridge and adopt an overwatch position. From there, we had to provide protection for an operation by another platoon. This allowed us to get used to local conditions, to become accustomed to working in this terrain and to driving around in it. (Peter, BG 1)

Things occasionally turn out differently, but that can also have a positive effect.

On patrol, on our third day in the region, we were supposed to move to a position. We were conducting our patrol, but we never reached the position. We were fired on quite accurately and were more or less surrounded. I learned a lot from that situation (....). What I saw that day has stayed with me. I was able to use the lessons I learned that day throughout the remainder of the mission. (Eric, BG 3)


Inspirational leadership is no guarantee of success, but in the case of leadership under extreme operational conditions it is essential that commanding officers are willing to lead from the front (FM 6-22; Solomon et al., 1986; Mutch, 2006). This is always expected of military commanders in the Israeli armed forces, see for instance Herzog (1984). If commanding officers are willing to run the same risks as their subordinates, they not only gain their respect but also faith in their decisions.

Leading by example is essential: you cannot simply issue difficult orders and then go and sit safely in your command post. At that moment, you also have to stand at the head of your unit. If you don’t, then your men will start to think: ‘go figure it out yourself.’ (Dirk, BG 8)

I always made sure that I was at the front, because leading by example is really important in my view. I accompanied every foot patrol and was therefore always with my men when there was a problem. They really took note of that. The PC was also always included in the sentry duty rota. However, sometimes I would wake up in the mornings and they had let me sleep in. Then it turned out they had altered the rota so that ‘their PC’ could have some extra rest. I thought that was amazing. (Stellan, BG 4)

‘Smile and Wave’, previously applied by Dutch Forces during the SFIR mission in Iraq, was a phrase commonly used by military personnel throughout the mission. A professional, ethical and sufficient open-minded attitude is important during counterinsurgency missions (Kilcullen, 2006; Hajjar, 2010; Perez, 2012), such as the ones in Afghanistan and Uruzgan, with a view to winning over the hearts and minds of the locals. This is not easy, however, when you have just been fired at or lost a colleague. At such times, platoon commanders need to keep their heads, display understanding for the dominant emotions, but also issue clear and unambiguous guidelines.

I could clearly see the sorrow and emotions on their faces after the IED strike. However, I also saw the frustration, which could potentially be aimed at the locals. I immediately talked to them about it. I didn’t expect them to make thumbs-up signs to the locals that day, but I would not accept any negative gestures. I asked the GPCs to keep an eye on this too. They had to have a clear head. If on the way back we were to antagonize the local people because of these emotions, this could jeopardize our safety and security in the region in the long run. (Kevin, BG 12)

Responses under extreme conditions

‘Success or failure will rest, increasingly, with the individual Marine on the ground – and with his or her ability to make the right decision, at the right time, while under extreme duress’ (Krulak, 1999). Everyone responds differently under extreme (environmental) conditions, such as military combat or the imminence of death (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). As a military commander, you need to take this into account, in the case of coming under fire for instance.

At that point we were under heavy fire. The prescribed drills for fire engagement had to be carried out. It was great to see the individual reactions from the men. For some it seems to be in their blood to fight back, to attack in the direction of the fire. Others wait patiently in a covered position near a Bushmaster, in a safe environment. One soldier behind the Bushmaster felt he had to lie down to fire at the opponent. Another was fine as he was, behind the Bushmaster. (Mark, BG 11)

People sometimes respond automatically, which is not always ideal during an exchange of fire.

One soldier had a jammed casing in his Minimi rifle and tried to solve this using a cleaning rod. At the same time, however, he had to run quickly towards new cover, during which he was covered by his sergeant. Just before he reached the new cover, he dropped his cleaning rod. So what did he start to do? He wanted to turn and pick up the cleaning rod while still under fire. The sergeant realised this and was able to grab him by the collar and pull him behind the wall. ‘What do you think you are doing?’ ‘I wanted to pick up the cleaning rod,’ he explained. ‘Get down, and forget the cleaning rod,’ the sergeant replied. (Bart, BG 2)

Fear is a common and crucial emotion in such situations. When fear does not take over, this can be a useful means for continuing to function correctly. And by not showing fear, fear will not spread amongst the troops, for fear is contagious (Miller, 2000).

I noticed that I never felt fear during combat. I was not scared of being hit. I didn’t even think about it. The realisation came later. This was positive. I was able to keep a cool head, in spite of the adrenaline. In the case of enemy activity, I usually needed five to ten seconds to realise what was going on and then I was able to act. (Kevin, BG 12)

I could choose between a place in a Viking in the rear of the column or in the Bushmaster at the front. I needed to think about it. Two marines had recently been killed in their Viking, but that had been towards the rear of the column. The Bushmaster is a safe vehicle, but most hits are taken at the front. Both options contained certain advantages and disadvantages and I deliberately considered the potential risks. (Anke, General Practitioner)

When under fire, people are generally well aware that they are in danger.

We came under heavy fire. I saw the bullets hitting the wall about thirty centimetres away from me. I was too visible, so my position was obviously not good. I therefore improved my position so that the direct fire ceased. (Bart, BG 2)

One of the interviewed platoon commanders had to be told by others that he was in danger as he was too busy doing other things.

One of my soldiers approached me during the battle. I was so busy sending radio messages while sitting against the quala[3], that I didn’t realise bullets were hitting the wall just above my head. It was interesting to hear the individual stories of the soldiers on this point. They also talked about me. Several of the men in my group said that they had seen what was happening and that they had fired in the direction from which the shots aimed at me were coming. I hadn’t even noticed. (Barry, BG 7)


Debriefing and evaluations are an important part of learning and coping with incidents. Not only because processes can be improved, as O’Toole and Talbot (2011) describe: ‘formal learning systems such as after action reviews captures the knowledge and determines a uniform interpretation’. Looking back is just as important after people have experienced serious incidents because of coping mechanisms. After such incidents, it is important for military personnel to be able to talk about them, to be able to give free rein to their emotions, as Raphael, Meldrum and MacFarlane (1995) report: ‘debriefing may be perceived so positively because it meets many needs: the need of those not directly affected to overcome their sense of helplessness and the guilt of surviving, to make restitution, and to experience and master vicariously the traumatic encounter with death; the needs of those directly affected to speak of what has happened, understand it and gain control; and the symbolic need for workers and the management to assist those who suffer and show concern’.[4]

Back at base, we were cared for as requested. I had said that I wanted to let off steam with the platoon between the inner and outer ring of Deh Rawod base. I had also asked the Company Sergeant Major (CSM) to arrange some food and drink, some beers (low-alcohol, of course) for the men. After letting off steam, we went to the base itself. The CSM had arranged for the minister, social workers, the psychologist and all kinds of people who could talk properly to our men. I had asked them to meet in the dining room, so that we could at least get things off our chests. At times you could hear a pin drop between the conversations in the dining room. (Marcel, BG 9)

Part III: Reflection

Return home

Families worry about the physical and mental health of the military family member upon return, especially after combat situations (Figley, 1993). A research of Wheeler and Stone (2010) shows how families are coping with the often-unexpected event of wartime deployment.[5] The safe return of military personnel is an event full of joy and emotion, but ‘although reunion may be joyously anticipated, it can be as challenging as the separation’ (Woods et al., 1995).

Only after the end of the mission did I realise how difficult it had been for my parents. They had been really worried. My parents don’t usually display their emotions, but when I walked into the arrivals hall at Eindhoven, their eyes filled with tears. I only heard later from others how much the mission had occupied their thoughts. They had never let on in conversations and correspondence during the mission itself. (Maaike, Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT))

The interviews show that many personnel had to re-accustom themselves to normal conditions at home and during their daily work. The tension of the mission seems to have stayed with some military personnel for a while.

Once I even experienced a colleague and myself ducking down when, on the way to an exercise, a tyre burst at a petrol station on the highway A27. We looked at each other and I asked whether he had also thought it was an IED strike. We had both had the same thought and it was quite funny. It’s not a problem and has nothing to do with fear. You have to get rid of some tension in your body and it takes time. (Gerwin, BG 6)

It was not easy to get back into home life. My daughter really had to get used to my presence. One day, my wife had gone to work and I was on my own in the house with my daughter. I wanted to do things for her, but she just wanted her mum. That was one of the hardest things. It took over six months for our relationship to return to more or less normal. (Erik, BG 5)

The leader’s role in situations like this is important to overcome the stigma associated with admitting a mental health problem and seeking help for that problem (Greene-Shortridge et al., 2007). The same interview showed the importance of leaders communicating openly about this with their troops.

I talked about this with my platoon. I remember that we were all sitting around and a few of them said that they wouldn’t participate in the interviews with the Defence Social Services after returning home. It was a load of rubbish and there were no problems, they said. I told everyone to think about it long and hard. I told them about the emotions I was experiencing, the things that troubled me and what I had problems with. You could see them thinking, ‘oh, so the lieutenant also has problems with certain issues’. Only then did they start to talk. (Erik, BG 5)

Looking back on the mission

One noticeable aspect is the positive comments from all those interviewed, in spite of some of these young officers having faced very difficult assignments. This is a promising signal, for ‘construing positive meaning from war and peacekeeping experiences, especially related to combat exposure or high perceived threat, is associated with better psychological adjustment’ (Schok et al., 2008).

I look back very positively on my mission. It was a great time because I was surrounded by all kinds of great people. I worked with lots of very different people in a very pleasant manner. It was an unforgettable experience. My personal contribution was minor, but I felt that I was doing something worthwhile. I gained a huge amount of experience, as a person and as a soldier, which I can use for the rest of my life. (Anke, General Practitioner)

I look back on the mission with a great sense of satisfaction and a positive feeling. I think that as a relatively young PC, with little experience and quite a lot of responsibility, I personally came out of it well. Those things I could influence turned out well. I looked back on this period so positively that I wanted to go on another mission. (Geerten, Engineer)

Personally, I think it was a period in my life which I shall always view as very important. A period in which I learned several major life lessons which will stay with me for the rest of my life. (Peter, BG 1)


When the soldiers come home they need to reconstruct a civilian or no-longer-deployed reality so as to fit back in with the Dutch military, their family and society.[6] Sharing experiences with others is one method of coping with the negative experiences of a mission. Not everybody is capable to talk about their combat exposure and experiences. In a research done by O’Brien and Hughes (1991) Falkland veterans who admitted to full PTSD symptomatology five years after the event were significantly more likely to state that on their immediate return to the UK they suffered problems, including talking about their experiences. There is not always the opportunity to do so, however.

I find it a huge effort to talk to people about the mission. I have to explain so much and I don’t want to. I prefer to talk to my brother, who is also in the military, or one of my best mates. To both of them I have talked that much I don’t have to explain them everything from the start. I feel I can tell them anything. I therefore talk about my missions very little with others. (Erik, BG 3)

With respect to coping, recognition and appreciation depends greatly on those around you. My family and friends want to listen and understand what it’s all about in dealing with events. It is not that we deliberately sat down to do so, but they were interested in what I had to say. For other soldiers from the platoon, I noticed that the home front didn’t always know how to react. Their friends had a totally different frame of reference. Those friends were more interested in a new motorbike, for instance. I noticed this difference after I got back from leave. During their leave, the soldiers were able to talk about things to varying degrees. This meant that a great deal of coping with incidents had to occur back at base within the platoon after the leave. Some soldiers in my platoon thought the disembarkation leave lasted far too long. They wanted to be back with their mates. They missed that sense of belonging to a group and the idea that everyone understood them 100%. They didn’t get that from their families and friends. (Stellan, BG 4)

About six months after the two missions, I saw signs that the soldiers needed to talk to their platoon cadre or the Spiritual Welfare Service or Defence Social Services personnel. I didn’t pick up these signs during actual missions. I think that this was linked to the operational pace. You move from one operation to the next, so you don’t really have time to reflect. And of course you have colleagues around you to whom you can talk 24/7. Once you’re home, you can talk about it, but they don’t really understand. The partial disintegration of the unit meant that some of the men found it more difficult to talk to someone about their experiences. (Bart, BG 2)

Lessons Learned

Lessons identified can improve operations, as many researches emphasize (Soldaat and Broks (2009), Perito (2009); Biddle (2002); Hyams et al. (2002)). A large number of individual lessons were of course learned during the TFU mission. Here, you can see overlap between those interviewed: on the role of commanding officers with respect to, among other things, leadership, teambuilding, communications, planning and conducting operations, combat and working with interpreters and the local population. All those interviewed, however, provided interesting information into many aspects on the basis of their own experiences and backgrounds.

At each presentation following my mission, I name what I believe to be my most important weapon as a platoon commander: my men. Any investment in them always pays itself back many times over. And that was the case here too. I have always put a great deal of effort into my relationship with my men. I was always available for the soldiers. They could phone me at any time of the day or night, even at the weekend. I helped them if they wanted to study etc. I think that that contributed to the high morale within the platoon and the men’s motivation. I believe that is why the mission went so well. (Dirk, BG 8)

This is one of my main lessons for others. Once you learn to make use of the knowledge of others, you can tackle the most complex situations. Use your platoon cadre and your specialists. Train with them and learn to work with them. Use what is offered and deploy it in such a way that it is used to the full. Then you can manage all the vehicles and personnel for which you are accountable for. (Bart, BG 2)

Physical and mental resilience is essential. Both these elements are required. This needs to be sorted before departure. You may be well drilled, have a great atmosphere in the unit and be well-trained in tactics: if you don’t know your own physical and mental limits and haven’t experienced being able to function properly after exceeding those limits, then you are missing out on essential training and opportunities. (Marcel, BG 9)

‘Begin with the end in mind’. This is one of the seven habits of effective leadership according to Steven Covey. I missed this leadership habit among many of those in my immediate vicinity: a clear end objective, with an action plan which has been formulated using SMART (Specific-Measurable-Acceptable-Realistic-Time bound). This starts during the preparation period, during which you set the main and derived objectives for the mission. This remains just as important during the mission itself, however. During the mission, you have to clearly formulate what you want to achieve with your unit in your area of responsibility. Next you need to continue communicating this clearly to your men. Too many key officials didn’t apply this strategy during the mission. (Maarten, Engineer)

Part IV: The key question

In political circles, the Dutch mission was always described as a reconstruction mission. In practice, however, there was occasional and in some areas regular heavy fighting. However, this last aspect, the actual fighting, was not sufficiently communicated in the media; the Ministry of Defence was sometimes ambiguous about this in the opinion of those interviewed. In spite of the restricted picture, a public debate quickly arose on the nature of the mission: what were we dealing with in Uruzgan, a reconstruction mission or a combat mission? As those interviewed had experienced the situation at first-hand, it would be interesting to hear their view of this discussion.[7]

I was never just in the fighting. It was a mix of everything and that’s what made my mission so interesting. I know for certain that you can only lose if you focus entirely on combat. Within the company, we devoted just as much attention to reconstruction. We always recognised the importance of that and that is what we planned our tasks around. This is important in a counterinsurgency operation. When you know you have 100 warriors in the region, you haven’t won the battle when you’ve eliminated all 100. The problems have not gone away. (Erik, BG 3)

I find it odd that people see this as a surprise. The creation of security (Defence[8]) is something that military personnel are excellently suited to doing! Anyone can do the other two Ds, Diplomacy & Development. I thought the political response was very strange, i.e. that if we were involved in combat there could by definition be no reconstruction mission. The main basis for reconstruction is precisely to create a stable basis and security in a region. When you create security, you are conducting a crucial task in a reconstruction mission. You can construct all kinds of things, but if it all goes up in flames then you have nothing left to show for it. I didn’t understand the debate. I thought it was more of a non-debate. (Stellan, BG 4)

Results and discussion


This kind of an interview project amongst junior leaders so shortly conducted after a mission is quite unique. Its results are very relevant for future operations. The outcome provides fundamental information, knowledge and facts how these young officers applied their leadership skills during this counterinsurgency mission and how they experienced their assignment, not only as a military professional but also as a person. The interviews showed that these junior leaders were well prepared for their tasks. They were competent leaders who were cultural aware, which is a critical competence in counterinsurgency environments. The interview also showed these junior leaders were not perfect, but competent enough to reflect on their experiences and decisions, ready to learn of them. The publication of the book in the Netherlands in April 2012, based on these interviews, will surely meet the other aims, for instance the aim of more respect and appreciation for the ones who have contributed to the ISAF-mission. So, the objectives of this project were certainly met.

To conclude, a content analysis was applied to select what is seen as the most important lessons learned as stated by the young officers in the interviews:

During the preparation period, try to work as much as possible on the basis of fixed structures. This saves a great deal of time during the mission. Leaders must first know themselves, otherwise they can never be capable of recognising others’ strengths and weaknesses. This is essential to forming as strong a team as possible. Invest constantly in your men, so that they can evolve as people. This makes them perform better, which in turn automatically leads to the team you have created being stronger. Physical and mental resilience is essential to a team being able to perform under extreme conditions. You must therefore never include soldiers in your unit who do not meet these criteria. In this respect, it is more important to have a good team than to have a good control of all your tasks as a unit. You will automatically grow into your tasks and role as a team once the team is fully up and running. The greater the team’s span of control, the more you must delegate and rely on the advice of your specialists. You cannot manage everything. Leading your unit by example is crucial here: as the leader, you must lead from the front and in doing so also maintain the initiative.

The future

The army needs missions like the ISAF mission to keep up a sufficient level of professionalism. The Dutch Army, like other armies, is due to severe budget cuts at the moment going through major changes and reductions. Missions of the size like the past years in Afghanistan are probably not possible anymore, not now or in the near future and not in the long run. This will surely have a negative effect on the level of professionalism of our soldiers, for when there aren’t challenging missions, military professionalism can hardly prosper.



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[1] There are six Regional Commands (RC) in Afghanistan; Regional Command South (RC(S)) is one of them.

[2] In the Netherlands, by law a veteran is: ‘any military personnel who have served in a war zone or an international operation.’

[3] A quala is an Afghan house.

[4] The concept of psychological debriefing after a serious incident is on the other hand discussed by Rose et al. (2002).

[5] A survey of Dimiceli et al. (2010) also showed self-appraised control and coping strategies military wives used in case of stressful experiences.

[6] The books of Jonathan Shay, ‘Achilles in Vietnam’ (1994) and ‘Odysseus in America’ (2002) are classic works considering veterans PTSD problems and on the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life.

[7] Notable works on the military and the media are ‘The Media and the Military in Peace and Humanitarian Operations’ by Charles Moskos (1996) and ‘The Military and the Media’ by Nancy Ethiel (2000).

[8] Dutch strategy in Uruzgan was built upon the three D’s: Defense, Diplomacy and Development.


[1] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386 S-RES-1386 (2001) on 31 May 2001

[2] United Nations Security Council Document 1154 Annex I – International Security Force