"Don't fight the enemy, make him irrelevant."
That slogan, summing up the tactics of the 1,500 Dutch troops in Afghan's Uruzgan province, once raised concern in other NATO nations whose troops are battling the resurgent Taliban in neighboring southern regions.
Now NATO is wooing Dutch politicians to ensure an upcoming parliament vote in the Netherlands won't lead to the withdrawal of troops who have been praised for playing a key role in the alliance's strategy by boosting security in Uruzgan, a hotbed of Taliban activity.
"They've done exceptionally well, not only with the security but also the stability aspect," said Gen. John Craddock, NATO's top operational commander who visited the Dutch base on the edge of Tirin Kot this week.
"Recent Dutch actions have gained the respect and trust of the people and the Taliban now know that that region is not theirs, so they have performed admirably. We want them to stay."
The decision by the Dutch parliament on whether to extend the mission beyond its planned August 2008 end date could be influential for other nations such as Canada where the government is also under pressure to curtail its deployment in the face of heavy casualties.
Craddock is struggling to persuade the 26 NATO member nations to provide more troops to the Afghan mission, particularly for the southern battlefields, and NATO commanders fear the withdrawal of key nations could threaten what progress has been made.
"Any time gaps are created, every time we have to adjust and move around forces and thin the ranks, it can be very difficult," Craddock said. "We're all locked arm-in-arm. If one of those arms comes loose, we've got to get in pretty quick, and that's the hard part."
In their sprawling camp overlooking a rare strip of fertile land between the desert and the parched mountains of central Afghanistan, Dutch officers explained their approach.
They seek to talk to local tribal leaders _ even those suspected of links with the Taliban _ to resolve local disputes, support economic development and undermine potential support for the militants. Rather than measuring success by the number of insurgents killed, the Dutch point to a revival in local commerce and development projects that have brought clean water and electricity to remote areas.
Summing up the Dutch approach, one local commander said the Dutch will fight and kill hard-core Taliban fighters and their foreign al-Qaida supporters _ he said Arab, Pakistani and Chechen fighters were active in the area. However, he made a distinction between the committed militants and local men who may take up arms because they are paid or coerced by the Taliban.
"If we kill a farmer, we get three more enemies, his brother, his uncle and his uncle," explains Lt. Col. Gino. In line with Dutch military practice, officers asked that their family names not be used.
Gino said Dutch troops will disengage where they can if they come under uncoordinated fire which they believe to be from such "day fighters."
But he says a major battle that Dutch troops fought in June with hundreds of Taliban insurgents for control of the district of Chora showed they will fight when necessary. Dutch and Afghan troops, backed by air power, fought off the Taliban assault killing up to 70 militants, including two key leaders, Dutch officials say.
NATO says the Dutch stand against the Taliban in Chora boosted by support from local people who, Dutch officers say, have little empathy for their former rulers but sometimes line up with the insurgents out of fear of reprisals, or because of offers of money or grievances against Afghan police or government officials.
One Dutch solider was killed in the battle for Chora and 10 have been killed in total in Afghanistan, the most recent a sergeant blown up by a roadside bomb on Sunday.
Despite the Dutch successes, those casualties have damaged public support for the mission in the Netherlands where many are demanding that the government stick to a plan to limit the mission to two years and bring the troops home in 2008. NATO has flown Dutch parliament members out to Tirin Kot ahead of the debate on the mission's future expected in the next few weeks.
Mark Rutte, leader of the opposition Liberal party, was impressed by what he saw, but says the Dutch need more support before he will endorse an extension of the mission.
"As a small nation we are engaged now on this mission, arguably the most difficult of Afghanistan," Rutte said in an interview as he flew back from Afghanistan. "Is it fair, within the NATO setting, that no other country is willing to take over?"
He will consider supporting a prolonged mission if the government boosts defense spending and more NATO nations agree at least to send troops to work alongside the Dutch in Uruzgan.
If not, the Dutch may be forced to pullout.
"What would that mean for what we have achieved in the last couple of years? That's the dilemma that we have to solve," he said.
"Don't fight the enemy, make him irrelevant."