Interview with UN Special Representative for Afghanistan: 'Afghanistan Needs more Western Troops'

By Georg Mascolo and Claus Christian Malzahn

German politicians are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the presence of Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan. UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom Koenigs spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the need for Germany and its troops to persist in Afghanistan and to keep the promise the West made to the war-torn country.

German Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tom Koenigs: "Those who want to withdraw now would leave the Afghan people in the lurch and abandon them to a terribly brutal movement."
AP

German Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tom Koenigs: "Those who want to withdraw now would leave the Afghan people in the lurch and abandon them to a terribly brutal movement."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Koenigs, as the United Nations' administrator in Afghanistan, you are constantly on the go in a dangerous country. What do you do to protect yourself from potential kidnappers?

Tom Koenigs: Following the devastating terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, an attack in which several of my friends lost their lives, the UN created a whole new security organization. That organization also provides my protection. I work under very strict security regulations, which can sometimes make life difficult.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you still have contact with ordinary Afghan people?

Koenigs: Afghan police provide protection during our so-called "road missions." In those cases, we travel in armored vehicles, and my deputies and I also travel with bodyguards. Unfortunately, that shields you completely from chance contacts, and you have to make do almost entirely without spontaneous encounters, encounters that can of course tell you a great deal about the general mood in the country. I greatly value conversations with Afghan people from all segments of society. But that is all organized beforehand, for security reasons.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How dangerous is the situation for foreigners in Afghanistan who are not as well protected as you are?

Koenigs: One should not travel there without very thorough security instructions and without thorough preparation of security measures. And everyone must know that if he travels to the country on his own initiative, he may also endanger others. After all, one seldom travels alone and that person also bears responsibility for the driver and translator.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But if the UN avoids certain areas because they are dangerous, how do you plan to continue developing the country?

Koenigs: "We can't cave in to the terrorist threat."
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Koenigs: "We can't cave in to the terrorist threat."

Koenigs: We have expanded our presence throughout the country very substantially. During the last year and a half, we have doubled the number of our provincial offices. That was especially important to me, so that we can be at close proximity to the people. The UN employs 300 international and 1,200 national employees in Afghanistan. In many places where it is no longer possible for international employees to work, you can still work with the local hires. In the dangerous areas, we have to coordinate our activities very closely with the ones who want our help -- and there are large numbers of such people in Afghanistan. We speak to the village elders a great deal.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, many aid organizations are withdrawing from rural areas because the risks non-Afghans are exposed to there are too great.

Koenigs: Traveling in the country has become much more difficult for foreigners during the last year and a half. The Taliban have incited an insurgency in parts of the country, especially in the Pashtun regions, with the aim of overthrowing the legally elected government in Kabul.The international community obviously underestimated the Taliban's ability to regenerate itself. That also has to do with the fact that they found refuge in neighboring Pakistan or, at least, weren't pursued there.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are the kidnappings centrally directed by the Taliban?

Koenigs: No. There are very different types of kidnappings. Some occur for purely criminal reasons while terrorist motives lie behind others -- or a combination of both.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Taliban seem to have stocked up their weapons arsenal considerably. Some observers are already speaking of the Iraqization of Afghanistan. Is that an exaggeration?

Koenigs: Yes. Nevertheless, in some areas the Taliban have adopted new military technologies. But these days, you can find those on the Internet. The threat has without a doubt increased during the last two years. But the political constellation is completely different from Iraq.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Displeasure over the deployment of Bundeswehr troops seems to be growing in Germany. The split over this issue can also be observed within your party, the Greens. Left-leaning regional Green Party groups want to put the issue of German troops in Afghanistan back on the agenda at a special party conference planned in September before the federal parliament votes on renewing the mandate.

Koenigs: We can't cave in to the terrorist threat. That would be the worst thing you could do to the Afghans and to the aid workers who want to continue working there. You have to face the challenge and vigorously stay on course. There is no other way to bring the situation under control. And one must not forget: The Afghan people have asked us to support them. After all, they suffer most from the terror of the Taliban. A troop withdrawal would very much disappoint Afghans, just as the international community disappointed them once before, in 1989 …

SPIEGEL ONLINE: … following the withdrawl of the Soviet occupying force, when the international community left the country…

Koenigs: … the suffering multiplied afterwards. It would be similar today. The Afghan people have suffered such a fate before. We have promised them we would support the reconstruction of their country and the restoration of democracy. Most Afghan people would like to see more, rather than fewer, Western troops in their country in order to improve security. The Americans have just contributed more troops. The British have also provided more troops. And there is strong pressure on other countries.

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