The Third World War: Why NATO Troops Can't Deliver Peace in Afghanistan

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Part 3: ISAF Flags Provide Illusion of Success

In the evening, the British play volleyball in their camp. The pitch is delineated with pieces of rope on the ground, while a burning pile of garbage smolders in an adjacent hole in the ground. One in four soldiers suffers from chronic diarrhea, and all of them have sunburns. Major McDonald is pleased, he says, "that this vacation here will soon be over."

The paratroopers are getting ready to move on to Helmand, where they will join up with US Marines. A Portuguese company will replace them at the Hutal camp. Two of the Portuguese commanding officers visited the camp at noon. Since then, Major McDonald's mood has worsened significantly.

The Portuguese were not satisfied with the condition of the camp. They asked their British counterparts whether it would be possible to set up an Internet café prior to their arrival. They also wanted an ice machine and an ATM. "An Internet café," says McDonald, "and an ice machine, now that's impressive."

The next attempt on the life of Hamid Karzai is still nine days away. April days are hot in Kandahar, as the Portuguese move into the camp at Hutal. An advance guard arrives in the early morning hours in Humvees with the Portuguese flag fluttering from the antennas, looking like victors entering captured enemy territory.

The Portuguese soldiers pose in front of their vehicles in groups, taking pictures to send home and behaving as if they were on vacation. McDonald, the British major, stands there, looking disgusted. He hands over command of the camp to his successor, the Portuguese commander Antonio Cancelinha. When the two men shake hands, they look as if they hoped to never cross paths again.

Graphic: Mission Impossible?
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Graphic: Mission Impossible?

Anyone standing in front of a map of Afghanistan, with shading delineating the five ISAF regional commands, must conclude that the country is under control. Colorful little flags identify the NATO troops' presence throughout the country, with Germany's colors flying in the northeast, Italy's in the far west, the Stars and Stripes covering the east, and the Union Jack and Canada's Maple Leaf blanketing the south. Interspersed among these flags are those of the Turks, the Dutch, the Lithuanians, Australians, Swedes and Spaniards. But the flags are an illusion.

ISAF Commander McNeill has said himself that according to the current counterterrorism doctrine, it would take 400,000 troops to pacify Afghanistan in the long term. But the reality is that he has only 47,000 soldiers under his command, together with another 18,000 troops fighting at their sides as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and possibly another 75,000 reasonably well-trained soldiers in the Afghan army by the end of the year. All told, there is still a shortfall of 260,000 men.

Large, intricately subdivided tables hang on the wall at ISAF headquarters in Kabul. The charts indicate which troops, from which country, can be used for which operations -- or, conversely, are barred from engaging in certain operations. Very few units can be used for everything, including combat missions. In conversation, General McNeill says that NATO is running "on reserve" in Afghanistan. Otherwise, he says, cooperation is "generally quite good."

Good News and a Lot of Bad News

Seven days still remain before the next attempt on Hamid Karzai's life, and on this day the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are launching a vaccination campaign in Kabul. In only three days, their goal is to vaccinate 7 million Afghan children against polio. There is good news and a lot of bad news.

In Pakistan, the army has begun razing the 30-year-old Jalozai refugee camp, which had provided shelter for 80,000 Afghans, who will now be forced to return home, joining a flood of millions of other refugees. In Kandahar, five policemen are killed by an improvised mine. In Paktiam, the Taliban have kidnapped two trucks loaded with military equipment, and in Khost the teachers at 15 schools are on strike because they haven't been paid in months. A petite woman named Habiba Sarabi is sitting in the tearoom at the Serena Hotel in Kabul.

She is the governor of Bamyan Province, the country's only female governor. Her region is one of the poorest in a poorhouse of a country. The topography is too mountainous for ordinary farming, the weather is too cold for decent harvests, in the winter the region is often cut off from the outside world for four months at a time, and even in the summer it is relatively inaccessible.

In some parts of Bamyan, 99 percent of residents can neither read nor write. A man is considered wealthy if he owns a mule, and anyone who falls seriously ill is given up for lost. This is the life that 90,000 people lead.

The Italians have promised to build a new road to Kabul, crossing the Hajigag Pass into Wardak Province, but no one has even broken ground yet. Habiba Sarabi says: "We need the wisdom to take advantage of this opportunity, or else we will fail once again, and this time it will be permanent."

That opportunity, she says, is the world's current interest in Afghanistan, an interest that Sarabi is convinced will not last. People are weary, she says, and even former members of the Taliban have laid down their weapons. "There is a development taking place, but it began 'at zero,'" says Sarabi.

A native of Mazar-i-Sharif, she an ethnic Hazara and she's a good woman who knows how to give straightforward answers to simple questions, and who doesn't sugarcoat anything. After studying medicine in Kabul and India, she fled from the Taliban regime in 1996, taking her family with her to Peshawar in neighboring Pakistan. When the Taliban later destroyed the famed Bamiyan Buddhas, she read about the incident in the newspaper.

When President Karzai offered her the governorship three years ago, Sarabi accepted without hesitation. She is undeterred by the fact that death threats are now part of her life, and that other governors refuse to interact with her because she is a woman. "We will also change the brains of men in Afghanistan," she says, "it will take a long time, but it will happen."

Cheerful Little Corners in a Down-at-its-Heels City

Six days before the next attempt on the life of Hamid Karzai, two US military trucks come under rocket fire in Khost, and in Faizabad a delivery truck containing 9,000 schoolbooks plunges into the Kokcha River. The police defuse a car bomb in Paktia, and in Kabul Chris Alexander, political director of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), walks across the marketplace to have dinner at the Boccaccio Restaurant.

Alexander is 39, a boyish-looking Canadian, and pundits at home in Canada predict that he has an important political career in his future. He has already been his country's ambassador in Kabul and he worked in Moscow for several years. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, chose him as a "Young Global Leader," a distinction that he acknowledges with a shy smile. He orders beef Carpaccio and pizza, while he and his friends at the table discuss the situation.

Drinking Chianti, the four friends, young businessman and diplomats, occasionally glance to the side to greet cabinet ministers who are also fond of dining at Boccaccio. At the surrounding tables, American intelligence agents cut their steaks, Swedish embassy employees load their forks with spaghetti, and bodyguards from New Zealand drink Corona beer. It is a collection of the members of Kabul's parallel world, envoys of a many thousand-headed army of helpers and mercenaries. After dinner, they go to La Cantina for a cocktail or to Bella Italia for dessert. Kabul, an otherwise down-at-the-heels city, has its cheerful little corners, populated almost exclusively by foreigners from around the world.

Alexander tells the story of how 40 convoys from the World Food Program disappeared last year, somehow, somewhere, entire columns of trucks loaded with food and medicine. Forty civilian aid workers were killed, he says, and 89 were abducted.

Yes, says Alexander, there is a lot of bad news, but there is also good news to report. "We had less than 1,000 schools here in 2001. Today there are 9,000, which is quite impressive."

The conversation at the table soon turns to the Karzai government. It has been in office for six years, but has failed to produce any presentable successes. Two-thirds of the ministries are hopelessly corrupt, they say, the cabinet is split along ethnic lines. As for Karzai? Merely the mention of his name is a source of amusement. He is seen as nothing but a weak, paranoid leader.

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