By Konstantin von Hammerstein, Hans Hoyng, Hans-Jürgen Schlamp and Alexander Szandar
"NATO will be finished" if the alliance fails in Afghanistan, says former US presidential advisor Brent Scowcroft. But does it even stand a chance of winning the war in the first place?
It seemed all too easy at the beginning. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NATO members were called upon, for the first time, in fact, to honor their collective commitment to defend individual alliance member-states. When the US invaded Afghanistan a short time later, the ruling Taliban and their menacing guest, terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, quickly took to their heels. Suddenly the mountainous country became a stage for far-reaching Western ambition. Or naiveté. A stabile democracy was to be developed -- and this in a country that had always been fragile. Moreover, Afghanistan's Muslim neighbors -- in western Iran, eastern Pakistan and, to the north, in the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- eyed the Western invasion with great suspicion.
The current backlash now seems virtually unavoidable. Five years after the US invasion, the Taliban are on the advance and the drug barons are making more money than ever, money that ends up paying for the war against the Taliban's NATO enemies.
Infrastructure in ruins
Are the NATO forces falling into the trap that has often ensnared foreign soldiers who have fought in the region? When Alexander the Great passed through the region on his way to India, he encountered as much resistance from the Afghans as did Mongol leader Genghis Khan. In the 19th century, Afghanistan became a critical pawn in the confrontation between two world powers: czarist Russia, which was pushing for access to the Indian Ocean, and the British empire, which saw its crown jewel, India, in jeopardy. British troops suffered humiliating defeat twice at the hands of the Afghans. A century later, Afghan guerillas even managed to force the Soviet superpower to withdraw its forces.
This huge country of 31 million is one of the world's poorest, and has one of the world's highest rates of infant mortality and mortality in childbirth. Much of its infrastructure is still in ruins. Even many Afghans working within the government bureaucracy are bitterly poor. When former German Chancellor Schröder and his entourage visited Kabul in May 2002, they had hardly stood up from a state dinner when hungry bodyguards and government employees descended on the tables to quickly devour the leftovers.
Now, it seems, it is the Germans turn to fight here. Just how strong the pressure is becoming became evident to Karsten Voigt, Merkel's coordinator of German-American relations, on a recent visit to the United States. After initially commending Voigt for Germany's role in Afghanistan, his US counterparts quickly came to the point. They accused the Germans of "focusing on reconstruction and securing the peace, but leaving the dirty work up to us." And then someone uttered a sentence that Voigt is unlikely to forget anytime soon. "The Germans have to learn how to kill" -- a clear reference to the Taliban enemy.
But Voigt is not the only one who has recently felt the displeasure of Germany's allies. "The pressure keeps mounting," says a German officer at NATO headquarters in Mons, Belgium. Remarks that were elegantly packaged only a few weeks ago are now being "worded clearly and unmistakably." Only recently, says the German officer, one of his British counterparts told him angrily: "We're sending two coffins home every week, while you Germans hand out crayons and wool blankets."
"To kill Taliban"
The Canadians have been especially clear. Of a total of 33,000 soldiers in the Canadian military, more than 2,000 are stationed in Afghanistan -- "with their backs to the wall," say the Canadians. It is high time, they added, for the Germans to abandon their bunks and learn "to kill Taliban."
The Germans were also criticized at a meeting of NATO parliamentarians in Quebec, Canada last Thursday. In a debate over national caveats -- limits imposed by some countries on what their soldiers in Afghanistan can be asked to do -- Bruce George, the chairman of the defense committee in Britain's House of Commons, and Labour MP Frank Cook vented their anger against the German allies. Some drink tea and beer, while others risk their lives, George fumed.
Cook told the group about of an incident in which, during "Operation Medusa," the ISAF commander-in-chief requested assistance for the beleaguered Canadians. "Five nations refused," he said indignantly, while at first declining to name the five. But then he described the specifics of the incident. According to Cook, a German commander said that although there were soldiers available under his command, Berlin had refused to authorize their deployment. Twelve Canadian soldiers, Cook said, were then killed in the operation in Afghanistan's Panjwai District.
The German government was quick to rebuff the accusations on Friday, with the defense ministry insisting that "such a request was never issued."
But the damage had been done, and the German parliamentarians were promptly taken to task in Quebec. "Our soldiers are dying while yours are drinking beer," Rainer Stinner, a member of the German parliament and of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) said in summarizing the essence of the accusations.
Really, though, the emotional outbursts aren't necessary; all it takes for the allies to put Germany on the defensive is to refer to hard numbers. So far the Afghanistan campaign has claimed the lives of 42 Canadians, 41 Britons and 350 Americans, but "only" 18 Germans. Indeed, the unspoken core of the dispute among allies comes down to this: the balance of the dead in the Afghanistan war.
Political factors take precedence
But the Germans are not the only ones who have limited their commitment. Although 37 nations have sent a total of 31,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, the political restrictions imposed by their governments have meant that most units can only be deployed under a limited set of conditions.
The chaos is already evident at the "Strategic Direction Center," the heart of NATO's military machine in Mons. This is where all foreign missions are prepared and managed, and where the various responsibilities of units from a wide range of countries are coordinated. But when Colonel David Short and his strategists bend over a map of Afghanistan to plan troop movements, the factors they must take into account are not just geographic or military. A notebook, always within reach, contains the political factors -- and they take precedence.
The book is marked "Confidential," and it cannot be removed from the room or even photocopied. It contains 102 clauses that regulate the latitude for deployments and movements of the various national troop contingents. British soldiers, for example, are not to be sent to the north, Turkish troops can only be deployed in the Kabul region, and Germans can be sent to the dangerous south and east only under certain conditions -- conditions stipulated by the Bundestag when it approved Germany's participation in the Afghanistan mission.
These national conditions are called caveats, and they are anathema to the senior NATO commanders in Europe responsible for Afghanistan. American four-star General James Jones believes that if some members expect the troops of other nations to defend them when they are in need, the reverse must also be true. After all, says Jones, this is only fair. Eliminating the caveats, he adds, would be just as effective as bringing in additional troops.
"Those who give without caveats are giving twice as much," says Polish Defense Minister Radoslav Sikorsky, who has promised up to 1,000 soldiers for next year -- without restrictions.
Aside from not having enough troops, the mission also lacks a precise definition of its goal. When, for example, would it be appropriate to apply the now-infamous term "mission accomplished?" Would it be when the Taliban have ceased to fight, the drug cartels have been destroyed and Afghan politics are clean and the government is in charge of its own country? Or when the US president declares it accomplished? No one can say.
Instead, the military brass are issuing reports from the front that read like the overly optimistic situation reports American officials broadcast during the Vietnam War. After "Operation Medusa" ended, both NATO military commanders and politicians at home bragged about its success and attempted to outdo one another with their macabre body counts. At first it was 500 Taliban, then 800 and finally 1,100 fighters that an international force consisting of Americans, Canadians, Dutch and Afghans allegedly killed in September. But it is clear that, despite NATO officials' claims to the contrary, this failed to stop the advance of the radical Islamists. But at least "Medusa" created a bit of breathing space for the ISAF forces.
The soldiers now in Afghanistan are told that they are "fighting for hearts and minds." But this is precisely what NATO troops have sorely neglected to do for years, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the remnants of terrorist organization al-Qaida and its Islamist jihad fighters driven out by an American-led contingent have gone into hiding. But now the new "hearts and minds" campaign takes priority. For example, whenever NATO soldiers enter a village, a meeting of the village council, or Jirga, is held to allow residents to discuss their problems.
They have been more than happy to comply, complaining at length about their misery. The villagers at these Jirga say that they have seen little improvement in the last five years since US troops marched into their country following 23 years of war and civil strife. They blame their suffering on the foreigners, Taliban and NATO soldiers alike, and on the government -- any government.
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