NATO Chaos Deepens in Afghanistan: "The Germans Have to Learn How to Kill"

By Konstantin von Hammerstein, Hans Hoyng, and Alexander Szandar

Part 3: Part III: The disaster of reconstruction

The rulers in Kabul are at fault because they are unable to repel the resurgent Taliban. The governor in the provincial capital is a villain because he makes sure the reconstruction funds are funneled to members of his own tribe. And, of course, the police chief is a bad man because he is both incompetent and corrupt. The Taliban's presence is being felt more and more, as they shoot mullahs who do not completely share their views, teachers who dare to teach girls, engineers who manage reconstruction projects and policemen who carry out the central government's orders.

The opium farmers are the only ones seemingly immune to the Taliban's bullets. Indeed, the Taliban help them defend their fields against alliance soldiers and policemen intent on destroying them. According to a nationwide opinion poll conducted this summer, one in four Afghans feels worse off today than under the Taliban regime. In contested Helmand Province, as much as 80 percent of the population sympathize with the Taliban and its holy warriors.

Killing has long since become a profitable business for the families of the murderers. The Taliban has announced a $2,000 reward for anyone who attacks a member of the new Afghan government forces, and $3,000 for those who strike the Western troops. Afghanistan's insurgents have undoubtedly learned a few lessons from their likeminded brethren in Iraq.

Mistakes have been made by everyone in Afghanistan, Germans and Europeans in addition to the Americans. Indeed, the entire international community seemed determined to fight a war on the cheap in Afghanistan, and to apply the same approach to the ensuing reconstruction effort. Tightfistedness was the name of the game.

Democratic Afghanistan, on paper at least

It began with the war itself. Although NATO invoked its collective defense clause for the first time in its history after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Americans, eager to retain control, initially had no interest in requesting troops from their allies. Besides, the deployment of larger contingents of ground troops seemed unnecessary. Instead, the United States waged an aerial war in which its planners frequently complained that, in the world's fifth-poorest country, there were too few targets worth bombing. More importantly, the Americans waged a proxy war by securing the help of many mujaheddin and warlords they had supported during the Russian occupation in the 1980s. Kabul had hardly been captured before these Afghan allies, sensing a new opportunity, demanded their just deserts.

An opportunity to satisfy that demand emerged during the negotiations at the Petersberg conference center near Bonn. The so-called Bonn Process was meant to establish a basis for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan.

On paper, at least, Afghanistan now has all those things that were agreed to, partly in response to palpable pressure from Washington and Berlin, at the United Nations-sponsored conference outside Bonn. President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun selected and championed by the Americans, has since been democratically elected by the Afghan people. In 2004 a constitutional convention, or Loya Jirga, provided the Afghans with a reasonably democratic constitution. The people's representatives were given substantial powers. They were to participate in determining political guidelines, ratify or reject ministerial appointments and confirm the judges on the county's highest court.

But the problem is that this strong, democratic Afghanistan exists at best on paper and in the imagination of the victorious Western countries. Everyone looked the other way when this new Afghanistan promptly returned to chaos, criminality and violence.

In hopes of preserving peace and stability, the central government and the Western allies allowed the once powerful local warlords to once again set up their own small fiefdoms in the provinces. The warlords soon became rivals for reconstruction aid, re-established opium cultivation and periodically resorted to violence. But as long as they swore allegiance to the central government, at least verbally, they were allowed to do as they pleased within the areas they controlled. They reduced Karzai's role to little more than the mayor of Kabul.

Chief of staff with blood on his hands

Even worse, the president was forced to award posts in the central government to his rivals and opponents, no matter how bloody their pasts were. Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum's career is the prototype. During the Soviet occupation, Dostum fought on Moscow's side against the mujaheddin, but he later embarked on a confusing series of switches in allegiance. In November 2001, Dostum, allied with the Americans, captured his former stronghold, Mazari Sharif, a city whose Shiite population the Taliban had brutally persecuted. After capturing the city, Dostum used equally brutal tactics in dealing with the enemy. He had captured Taliban locked into containers and taken out into the desert, where they would suffocate to death. Despite the fact that his reputation for violence kept him from attending the Petersberg conference, Dostum was appointed acting defense minister of the transitional government at the peace conference, and was later a candidate for the presidency. He has been chief of staff of the new Afghan army since 2005.

For years, the country's south and east remained the exclusive deployment region for "Operation Enduring Freedom" (OEF), a group consisting mainly of US troops, initially numbering about 5,000. They hunted down al-Qaida members and blew up Taliban positions, showing a clear aversion to any ideas of reconstruction or development aid.

Instead of a comprehensive reconstruction concept, the UN agreed to a loose allocation of responsibilities. Under the plan, the US would train a new Afghan army of 70,000 men and the Japanese would be in charge of demobilizing about 100,000 members of private militias. The Germans' task was to train a new 62,000-member police force. Ironically, the Italians were to provide assistance in developing a new judicial system, while the British would manage a campaign against drug cultivation.

The allocation of responsibilities proved to be a fiasco. When the then American ambassador in Kabul, Robert Finn, saw the new army's first supposedly trained recruits during a exercise, he was appalled: "They were illiterate," he said. "They didn't know how to keep themselves clean. They were at a much lower level than people expected."

The new police force was no more impressive. Afghanistan's new custodians of the law, originally a force of about 80,000 men, were completely unaccustomed to patrolling city streets. Instead, they preferred to set up checkpoints, where they would wait for Afghans to drop in and report crimes -- at which point they could decide whether to take action, a decision that all too often depended on the requesters' ability to pay bribes.

"Very disappointing"

The Germans sent only 41 advisors to bring this force up to speed. They opened a police academy in Kabul where 3,500 police officers were to be trained within three years. German officials continue to justify this minimalist approach to this day, insisting that it was more important to train a core group of effective people who could then pass on their freshly acquired skills. But no one ever bothered to consider the possibility that time could also be a factor.

Only in recent weeks has NATO Supreme Allied Commander Jones criticized the work of the German police training contingent, calling it "very disappointing." According to NATO officials in Kabul, the 16,000 German-trained, local police officers are "poorly trained, poorly paid and corrupt."

The Americans took matters into their own hands. To speed up police training, they hired a private contracting firm, Dyncorp, which produced results even inferior to those achieved by the Germans. After two or three weeks of the most rudimentary training possible, Dyncorp would release the recruits onto the streets, where they were more likely to do harm than good.

The Japanese made no headway in their disarmament program. In Helmand Province, traditionally a stronghold of the insurgents, the program didn't even get underway until 2005. The Italians' efforts to develop the judicial system has also lagged far behind its ambitious goals, so much so, in fact, that war criminals and drug dealers remain unconcerned about the possibility of criminal prosecution. And the British anti-drug campaign has only led to record opium harvests and to the fact that 92 percent of the heroin sold in the world stems from Afghan fields.

The mainly American OEF troops in southern and eastern Afghanistan quickly developed a reputation, not only for hunting down terrorists but also for the collateral damage they caused. Innocent civilians were constantly being killed during US air attacks. From time to time, the Americans were even tricked by their own allies who, apparently with scores to settle with hostile clans, provided carefully targeted tips to direct American firepower against their rivals' houses or convoys.

It wasn't until late 2003 that the Western nations involved in Afghan reconstruction realized that the situation had become untenable. ISAF boosted its troop numbers and began stationing its soldiers and reconstruction teams outside Kabul. That was when the Bundeswehr's soldiers were sent to the country's northern provinces. But precious time had already been lost.

Primarily strategic importance

If most Afghans had initially welcomed the soldiers from Western countries as liberators after the fall of the Taliban regime, the mood shifted long ago. Instead, when Canadian and British ISAF units advanced into the south, an area formerly held exclusively by OEF troops, they were confronted with an insurgency.

The realists among military leaders are now convinced that fighting the Taliban will be a lengthy operation. But unlike the situation in Iraq, the countries that are supplying the bulk of troops in Afghanistan, the United States and Great Britain, are not seriously considering a withdrawal. Experts agree that Afghanistan's importance is primarily of a strategic nature.

If the Taliban were to retake the country, it would have serious and perhaps even disastrous consequences for the entire region. As cynical as it sounds, the West could still accept losing Afghanistan. But neighboring Pakistan is a different story. About the only thing that has stood between that country's Islamists and the atom bomb is Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf is already having great difficulties keeping his country's fundamentalists in check. The Pakistani president, who has barely managed to escape several attempts on his life, is currently the West's most important ally in its war against terror. It is difficult to imagine Musharraf holding his own if NATO were to abandon Afghanistan. Even NATO Supreme Allied Commander Jones has since recognized that the country's problems cannot be solved "by military force alone." He believes that far more attention must be paid to rebuilding the country and that a civilian presence is also needed.

Jones' comments couldn't be more pleasing to German Chancellor Merkel's ears, as they reflect precisely the sort of policy the Germans find so crucial. At a morning strategy meeting in the Chancellery last Wednesday, the muddled situation in Afghanistan was discussed. Volker Kauder, parliamentary floor leader of Merkel's conservatives, and whose wife, a physician, periodically works in developing countries, has urged the government to increase its civilian efforts.

Kauder cites historical reasons to support his argument that a new Marshall Plan is what's needed for Afghanistan. According to Kauder, the policy of division that was instituted after 1945 allowed each of the global powers to control a part of Europe. But there was no policy of unity, as the Germans painfully learned when they toppled the Berlin Wall. No one was prepared for what was to come.

More fighting for Germany?

Nowadays the West is pursuing a worldwide policy of intervention that focuses primarily on military force. "But what happens after victory?" Kauder asks, shrugging his shoulders. "We must learn to develop a policy of opportunity for the countries in question." The community of nations, says Kauder, must invest money and attention to solidify its military victories.

Kauder recommends taking a more cautious approach in Afghanistan, especially one that does not begin with the burning of opium fields to combat heroin production. "The West must offer the farmers compensation, and we must gradually wean them away from it," he says. A group of senior German administration officials will soon meet to address alternative ways to develop Afghanistan economically. Cabinet ministers should take note. Members of Merkel's staff cite Kauder as saying: "The development minister sits in the cabinet, behaving as if everything were absolutely fine, and doesn't seem to think this is her business."

Although Kauder's comments did catch the attention of the defense minister, he faces his own set of problems. The Germans will hardly be able to dodge their allies' increasingly vocal demands for combat support by increasing their civil commitment. Indeed, no senior official can rule out the possibility that German forces could indeed be seeing more fighting in the not so distant future. But if Berlin has its way such deployment will at least be postponed for as long as possible.

In page after page of documents for the command staff ("ISAF -- Arguments for German Involvement"), the defense minister has carefully listed all of Germany's current military contributions. "It is not just the Afghans," he writes, "especially in the northern provinces, who depend on us and expect us to continue our involvement without change. The 18 nations that provide troops stationed in the north also depend on us." Germany, writes Jung, is responsible for tactical air transport, "air-supported medical care," operating the "logistical hub for all nations" at the airport in Mazari Sharif," and so on.

Even this PR effort will crumble at some point, and in anticipation of this event officials at the Chancellery and the defense ministry are already drawing up plans for a retreat. One of the Bundeswehr's coveted Luna reconnaissance drones, including an operating staff of 30, would help support Berlin's interest in the success of the "total operation." But Tornado reconnaissance jets would be even better.

Defense Minister Jung and Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, concerned that the Bundestag would refuse to approve more than the current 3,000 troops for the ISAF mission, already proposed this idea during the German parliament's last debate over Afghanistan. But now the idea is being revived -- to give the chancellor more latitude at next week's NATO summit in Riga.

If the plan were approved, six Tornado jets from the "Immelmann" reconnaissance unit in northern Germany would be stationed at the new German headquarters in Mazari Sharif, as well as a 250-man crew to handle air operations, maintenance and analysis of aerial images. However, this would require that Germany's Grand Coalition government obtain a new mandate from the Bundestag, because deploying the aerial unit would exceed the troop strength allowed under the current rules.

Officials in Berlin are no longer overly confident that this approach would work. NATO allies were unimpressed, one of Jung's advisors said last week. But the pressure on Germany will only mount with each new NATO casualty. "They want to see a battalion of German grenadiers in Kandahar."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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