The Discount War: ISAF Is Failing in Effort to Secure Afghanistan on the Cheap

By , Konstantin von Hammerstein and Alexander Szandar

Germany's parliament votes this Friday on whether to extend Berlin's participation in the military mission in Afghanistan. The country is on the brink of disaster, but German politicians have chosen to ignore Afghanistan's real problems.

Italian Brigadier General Fausto Macor is the ideal star witness to make the situation in Afghanistan dramatically clear to German politicians. The wiry general from the northern Italian city of Turin has been in charge of the Regional Command West of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan since July. He and his men are deployed in what is considered the quietest and safest part of the country.

Macor and his men are barricaded into an area near the airport in Herat, an old trading city of 250,000 inhabitants that has long served as a gateway to nearby Iran. Heavily armed Albanian soldiers guard the entrance to the camp, which is protected against enemy fire by a 1-meter-thick wall of boulders.

On Tuesday of last week, the general met with Eckart von Klaeden, the foreign policy spokesman of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Von Klaeden had traveled to the city with the German ambassador to Afghanistan, Hans-Ulrich Seidt.

The general is slightly delayed, having attended a memorial service for two Spanish soldiers who were killed the day before in a bomb attack 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south. The service was broadcast live on Italian television to a distressed nation. NATO troops have just liberated two kidnapped Italian intelligence officers from Macor's contingent. One of the Italians suffered serious injuries during the raid.

The commander sits in a chair, his back to the television set, and points to a military map on the wall. "You see," he says, "I am responsible for an area half the size of Italy." Then he rattles off the relevant statistics. Of the 1,800 soldiers under his command, only 270 can go on patrol. If he sends two units out on patrol, they can easily find themselves operating 400 kilometers (249 miles) apart. "It's as if one of them were in Turin and the other in Venice," says the general.

He can expect little support from the Afghan army, which has only 400 armed troops in the western sector. As a result, the general is left to his own resources as far as entire regions are concerned. He has no illusions. There is no power vacuum in Afghanistan: Taliban fundamentalists, armed tribal warlords or criminal gangs control the areas where there are no international troops.

In fact, the rule of law ends only a few hundred meters from Macor's headquarters, where the commander of the Herat airport complains about his situation. Outside, the warm late autumn sun shines on the Italians' gray Hercules transport aircraft. The mustachioed police colonel keeps his office cooled to a chilly 19 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Fahrenheit). The law requires that no armed soldiers be allowed on the airport grounds. The police colonel complains that his men, armed with only 30 old Kalashnikov automatic rifles, are poorly equipped to uphold the law at the airport.

Germany is in charge of Regional Command North in Afghanistan.
DER SPIEGEL

Germany is in charge of Regional Command North in Afghanistan.

This isn't nearly enough firepower to deter the city's powerful men, who often appear on the tarmac with scores of bodyguards armed with pistols, rifles and mobile grenade launchers. In front of the parked aircraft, rival private armies occasionally engage in violent gun battles, while the airport commander's men are forced to look on helplessly.

Welcome to Afghanistan in the sixth year following the Western intervention. Welcome to a country that ranks, sadly, in eighth place in the 2007 edition of the "Failed States Index" compiled by the US magazine Foreign Policy -- just behind Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe. Welcome to Afghanistan, the country NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has proclaimed a test case for the future operability of the world's most powerful military alliance.

A troop withdrawal would be a "serious defeat for international law and the international community," warns Peter Struck, the floor leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), while German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes that her country's commitment to the operation in Afghanistan is "the only way to demonstrate that we fight terrorists, and that we do so with great resolve." Welcome to one of the most controversial issues in German foreign policy.

This Friday, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, will vote on whether to extend two of the three German military mandates in Afghanistan, currently the Bundeswehr's most dangerous mission. Twenty-one German soldiers have already lost their lives in Afghanistan, and last Friday three Germans were lucky to escape from a suicide attack with only minor injuries. The Bundestag will decide the fate of up to 3,500 soldiers and six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft operating in Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO's ISAF force.

Parliament's approval of the mission is considered a done deal, with a broad majority in both the ruling grand coalition and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) likely to vote in favor of keeping the troops in Afghanistan. Even a number of Green parliamentarians intend to support the measure, despite the party's recent decision not to. Only the Left Party is strictly opposed to the Bundeswehr's Afghanistan mission.

The future of Germany's more controversial involvement in the US-led antiterrorism Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) will not be decided until November, after the SPD convention in Hamburg.

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