The World from Berlin 'A Few Years Won't Be Enough' in Afghanistan

The symbolism was significant. For the first time, world leaders gathered in Afghanistan to discuss the country's stability. Nevertheless, say German commentators, the aim of transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan military by 2014 is hardly realistic.

NATO foreign ministers and other world leaders gathered in Kabul on Tuesday to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan.
AP

NATO foreign ministers and other world leaders gathered in Kabul on Tuesday to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan.


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was optimistic. "Today was a real turning point," she said of Tuesday's Afghanistan conference held in Kabul, attended by NATO foreign ministers, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Together, the gathered leaders greeted Karzai's timetable calling for Afghan forces to take complete control of the country's security by 2014.

Karzai also made promises to fight corruption and lift "people from poverty to prosperity and from insecurity to stability." "Our vision," he continued, "is to be the peaceful meeting place of civilizations."

Yet despite the confidence the conference was at pains to project, skepticism as to whether the timetable -- nonbinding though it may be -- can be adhered to is widespread. The last few months have been the most violent in the nine-year-old war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Karzai has proven unable to gain the upper hand against corruption despite repeated pledges to fight the scourge.

Tuesday's conference seemed to reflect such doubts, with NATO allies declining to subscribe to a strict timeline for withdrawal and likewise remaining vague about the much-touted handover of security responsibility. Indeed, the only solid commitment made was that of adjusting how foreign aid gets distributed to Afghanistan. Fifty percent of funding from abroad will now be funnelled through the state budget rather than being sent directly to Kabul ministries, as has been the practice thus far.

Still, there is a growing domestic pressure for countries involved in Afghanistan to begin withdrawing their troops. US President Barack Obama pledged last year that he would begin looking for ways to reduce the US presence in Afghanistan. And pressure for withdrawal is becoming difficult to ignore in a number of European capitals as well.

A condition for any kind of withdrawal, however, is that the Afghan army be able to provide for the country's security. By the end of 2011, some 170,000 Afghan soldiers are to be in uniform. Furthermore, the Karzai government ambitiously aims at encouraging 36,000 Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons over the next five years. Doubts that Afghanistan will be able to meet such goals are widespread.

German commentators take a look at the conference in Wednesday's papers.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The conference in Kabul was said to stand for transition. It refers to the Afghan government's aim to take over control of the country's security and reconstruction step by step -- once foreign troops begin departing the country next year. Tuesday's conference named 2014 as the end point of that transition."

"That, though, is likely to remain in the realm of fantasy. The government of President Hamid Karzai will not then be in a position to control Afghanistan, neither administratively nor militarily. Whether the country, with its numerous tribes, sub-tribes and clans can be centrally controlled at all remains the most pressing political question. Furthermore, one can't even begin to estimate which insurgents or how many Taliban might take up the government's offer to negotiate and become integrated into the political process. And finally comes the question of money.... Corruption in Afghanistan is endemic. Should half of financial aid be funnelled through the central government in the future, off-the-books deals promise to flourish."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The aim has been established: In 2014, Afghanistan's military and police are to take over responsibility for the country's security, according to President Hamid Karzai. Thereafter, foreign troops will only have a 'supporting role.'"

"But Afghanistan's military and police forces are far, far away from being able to stand on their own two feet. It is unclear just what the military support, promised by NATO, is to look like. And nobody believes that the omnipresent corruption will disappear by 2014."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"The specification of 2014 as the date by which Afghanistan will take over responsibility for its own security was first and foremost an effort to mollify the Western public who have become increasingly tired of the war. It has little to do with a realistic assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. Indeed, the demand made by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, that the Afghan leadership take 'concrete steps' to fight corruption and the drug trade sounds like little more than empty activism given the dubious character of the Karzai government. His comment that the reintegration of the Taliban into Afghan society 'is a precondition for stability and a return to lasting peace' sounds even more like wishful thinking. For the Taliban, there is little motivation to lay down their weapons and become a constructive partner for peace as envisioned by the West. On the contrary, they see victory -- both ideologically and militarily -- as being increasingly within their grasp."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"A concrete timeline has numerous advantages. It allows for reliable planning, it makes it possible to establish benchmarks of success and it increases the pressure to stay within the established framework. But in the case of Afghanistan, it looks as though one group in particular would benefit from the naming of a concrete departure date for Western troops: the Taliban."

"As such, NATO should quickly dampen the expectations of Western voters that their troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014. The ambitious timeline is handicapped by having been forced by domestic political pressure. In Germany, the US and elsewhere, voters are tired of the war in Afghanistan. As a reaction, US President Barack Obama has provided them with the perspective of an end to the fighting."

"But foreign policy realities almost never adhere to the demands of domestic political campaigning. The security situation in Afghanistan -- made worse by years of irresolute back-and-forth by the West -- is so instable that a few years will likely not be enough to build up the Afghan military and police forces to the strength necessary."

-- Charles Hawley

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