02/26/2009 08:04 PM

NATO Slammed over Afghanistan Mission

'The Americans Don't Care about More European Troops'

US expert Jeremy Shapiro talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the way forward in Afghanistan and why a troop surge is not the answer.

Correction: In a previous posting of this interview our headline gave the impression that Jeremy Shaprio called the entire European effort in Afghanistan "appalling". This is not correct. Shapiro was only referring to the slow progress made so far in the area of police training.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: US President Barack Obama just announced his intention to send 17,000 more US troops to Afghanistan. Is this enough to turn the situation around?

The US is sending another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. Will it be enough?
Getty Images

The US is sending another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. Will it be enough?

Jeremy Shapiro: In my view, there are four key problems in the country: The situation at the border with Pakistan where insurgent fighters find sanctuary, a deficit of international civilian assistance and inadequate coordination of what does exist, the shortcomings of the Afghan government, and the corrupting influence of narcotics. Clearly sending more troops will improve security in some local areas, but unless there is a plan to deal with these issues, more troops will only perpetuate the military stalemate in Afghanistan at higher levels of violence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What else is needed?

Shapiro: Some of the whispers I hear from the current discussions in Washington point towards a more promising new political strategy: stronger efforts at local reconciliation, more focused and coordinated civilian aid programs, efforts to improve Afghan government provision of services to the population, and increased police and army training. There also rumors about attempts for a regional deal with Pakistan that involves India. If such a strategy is coordinated with the troop deployment, that is, if the international community and the Afghans are able to use improved local security to implement such measures, we could see progress.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But haven't most of these measures already been tried? Europeans, most notably Germans, have been trying to train the Afghan police for years.

Shapiro: The European effort, including the German one, has been absolutely appalling in this area. In some ways, we would be better off if they had not done anything at all. That is one of the overriding problems in Afghanistan: A lot of the efforts are simply wasted. We need more effective unity of command and that is something that I think the current strategy reviews in Washington will push for.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the US does not want more soldiers from the Europeans -- they want help in other areas and more control?

Shapiro: Yes, the European debate has totally missed the boat on that. Their whole focus on troop deployments neglects what is actually happening. The Americans do not want a few thousand more NATO troops wandering around in Afghanistan. For the immediate future, they are prepared to play that part on their own in exchange for greater control. This is a serious threat to NATO and to trans-Atlantic solidarity -- but probably good for the situation in Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think the mission in Afghanistan will become more and more a US operation?

Shapiro: Washington will not kick NATO out, of course. But the current structure will become increasingly irrelevant as more US troops arrive. This is already happening. Therefore, the debate with the Europeans should no longer focus on troop contributions. NATO partners have 35,000 soldiers in Afghanistan -- they have increased their troops a lot in recent years. The problem is they are not using the resources they have already committed very well. The Americans don't care about more European troops. They want more effective commitments, which means using resources already deployed more efficiently and offering new capabilities that fill urgent needs.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But Europeans want a clearer military strategy from the Americans. They say Afghanistan is different from Iraq, where increasing troop numbers did actually improve the situation on the ground.

Shapiro: The military strategy in Afghanistan is clear -- it was agreed at last year's NATO summit and endorsed by all the leaders. It is just not working. Assumedly, what Europeans want is a more effective strategy. That is a lot harder to achieve than mere clarity. And of course, as everybody likes to mention, Afghanistan is not Iraq. But General David Petraeus (Ed's note: Petraeus is the head of US Central Command and was formerly commander of American forces in Iraq) is not an idiot -- he is well aware of this. He effectively wrote the book on counterinsurgency which emphasizes the critical importance of local context for any counterinsurgency campaign. But there are certainly lessons to be learned from Iraq and other experiences with counterinsurgency for Afghanistan -- such as the importance of population security, of getting the US military out on the streets, of the value of local forces and local reconciliation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But will these lessons actually be applied in Afghanistan?

Shapiro: The history of the US military is that it never does anything right the first time, but over time, it adjusts very effectively for a large institution. It is hard to imagine a bigger screw-up than the Iraq war, but the military learned from that experience more than any other institution. One of the ways it adjusted was to develop the ability to apply local knowledge to their counterinsurgency campaign. That would also help tremendously in Afghanistan where US and NATO troops have been stationed for many years and have amassed much local knowledge.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A big obstacle, however, remains the border to Pakistan where militant fighters are infiltrating Afghanistan.

Shapiro: Right. I don't think anyone has a solution for that. The current air-strikes against militants in the region which the Obama administration continues are just a Band-Aid. They could even make the situation worse. A solution to that problem requires a regional approach. The appointment of Richard Holbrooke as US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan implies that the administration has recognized the need for such a regional approach that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and also India.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Such an approach would include a lot of interaction with the Afghan government. But so far Obama has barely talked with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Shapiro: The US government is justifiably weary of Karzai and his performance. However, they would be very foolish to assume that they can engineer a more effective Afghan government -- that has failed dramatically in the past. One of the reasons Karzai frustrates the international community is that he has to prove to his population that he is an independent actor and, for instance, complain about air strikes that cause civilian casualties. We have to recognize that any Afghan leader will need to and should show independence from the international community. At the same time, we should be able to insist on improvements in governance, on efforts to root out corruption, and on fair and open presidential elections.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will the presidential elections happen this summer?

Shapiro: I believe they will happen at some point this year, yes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Speaking of elections, should Obama fear a backlash against the Afghan mission with voters at home? US commentators are already talking about "Obama's Vietnam."

Shapiro: No. Obama ran on the mandate of more engagement in Afghanistan. If, in a year or two, things have not improved, Americans might start to question our commitment. But right now the president has plenty of public support to push for a long-term commitment.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission