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All eyes on 'little Napoleon' in NATO command switch

Doug Saunders, Globe & Mail, 2 Nov 06

Article Link


When his admirers call him "a little Napoleon," they are referring both to his stature and his voluble confidence. Brigadier-General Ton Van Loon, the Dutch officer who took over command of the NATO troops in Afghanistan this week, is clearly a different personality from the mild-mannered Canadian general he replaced.


But soldiers in the field, including more than 2,300 Canadians in the deadly Kandahar region, and political observers in the Netherlands and Canada, are anxiously waiting to see whether Gen. Van Loon will be a different sort of leader in other respects.


In an Afghan war that has been hampered by friction between nation-building and fighting the Taliban, the change of leadership from Canada to the Netherlands this week has led to speculation that the tenor of the conflict will also change.


"Is Van Loon going to do things differently? He may want to but I'm not sure he can do much," says Jan Willem Honig, a Dutch expert on the politics of NATO warfare at King's College in London.


"The Dutch in general very much favour winning hearts and minds, which suggests an immediate contrast with the Americans, who are said to favour the heavy-handed fighting approach," Mr. Honig said. "But I'd say that context tends to get the better of . . . peaceful inclinations rather easily."


However, many NATO observers say that Gen. Van Loon is likely to make a deliberate effort to differentiate the NATO mission, known as the International Stabilization and Assistance Force, from the earlier U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom. Canadian leaders have been criticized for following the military-oriented U.S. approach too closely.


Gen. Van Loon is a little-known figure in the Netherlands. He briefly rose to national attention for a distinctive act of inventiveness and courage seven years ago during the NATO campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces in the Balkans.


It was 1999, and it appeared that an ethnic slaughter was about to take place in Kosovo unless some armed soldiers were brought in to the regional capital of Pristina, fast. But an ugly showdown between Russian and British troops was preventing any help from arriving.


A young Dutch artillery officer, his NATO troops in their traditional position far behind the line, realized he had to do something. So Ton Van Loon used his howitzers as tanks, his artillery soldiers as infantrymen, and secured the region.


"This was his major feat; it really showed that he could rise to the occasion," said Steven Derix, a reporter with the Amsterdam newspaper NRC Handelsblad who spent time with Gen. Van Loon in Afghanistan. He described an outspoken leader who likes to unwind by playing fantasy-oriented computer games.


Many military observers say that Gen. Van Loon's options will be severely constricted by the nature of the NATO operation, which in southern regions such as Kandahar has become an aggressive fight against Taliban insurgents.


"The key challenge all countries face is how to integrate the use of force with the pursuit of the political objectives of establishing a functioning democracy under the rule of law. Nobody really understands very well how to do that," Mr. Honig said.

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