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“At the moment, hardly anything is being built”

by Marco Seliger
The results of Afghanistan’s presidential elections were still in question as D+C went to press at the end of September. As the security situation remained tense, US military leaders were demanding more troops. Marco Seliger of Loyal, a German security magazine, assessed matters in an interview with Hans Dembowski. [ Interview with Marco Seliger ]

US commanders say President Barack Obama must deploy more soldiers to Afghanistan. The aim is to use more ground troops instead of relying on air strikes, which all too often claim civilian lives. Do such plans make sense?
What is certain is that General David Petraeus, who is in charge of the US military from Egypt to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and Stanley McChrystal, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, would like to have more troops. They want to proceed in Afghanistan in a similar manner as Petraeus did in Iraq, where the situation stabilised after US troops began to leave their camps, mingle with the local people and prioritise the prevention of civilian casualties. In line with this doctrine, it is only logical to demand more troops. In view of the devastating effect air strikes have had on people’s disposition, the Americans have understood that they cannot go on that way.

Is the strategy likely to succeed?
The catch is that Afghanistan is a huge, mountainous and extremely inaccessible country. I can hardly imagine that 50,000 more soldiers would really establish a comprehensive presence in towns and villages, especially since the infrastructure is so weak. And once US troops get into trouble, there will certainly be air strikes to rescue them. The real objective is to prepare Afghanistan’s own security forces to assume responsibility. At some point, they will have to stay in the places cleared of the Taliban and protect the people. Getting there may yet take years, however.

In principle, the German government opposes overly aggressive tactics, but in September a German officer himself ordered an air strike. Civilians where killed, and Germany’s allies reacted critically. Have the tables turned?
No, and some, for instance the French foreign minister, have already backtracked. I’m sure that Colonel Georg Klein did not reach his tactical decision easily, and he himself was surprised by the extent of the damage. But debate here in Germany was unacceptable too. Criticism was levied before anyone could possibly know what exactly had happened. Bundeswehr soldiers in Kunduz unanimously agree that Klein’s decision was correct. After all, rebels had hijacked two petrol tankers, and the vehicles could have served as gigantic bombs to attack German or Afghan forces.

Since the beginning of the Afghanistan mission, Germany has always stressed the aspect of building up the country and played down the military dimension. Is that rhetoric coming back to haunt us?
It’s obvious that, at the moment, hardly anything is being built in Kunduz, where German Bundeswehr soldiers have been deployed. The international aid agencies have withdrawn. The region is crawling with Taliban. Attacks on the Bundeswehr and our Afghan allies are a daily occurrence. The international community should have increased troops much earlier, but politicians shied from the topic. Today, the rebels mingle with the civilian population of Kunduz as if they were at home.

So the Taliban enjoy some kind of legitimacy in the eyes of the people, but the Afghan state does not.
The state cannot have any legitimacy. The Afghan people are not stupid, they see corruption, they know the government is lining its own pockets. Might makes right, which is why provincial governors run their own militias. People live in constant danger and rely on those who are most likely to provide any kind of security. The central government is far away, and the groups in power are those who are present and command weapons – and that includes the Taliban. But you must not confuse today’s Taliban with those of the past.

What has changed?
In the 1990s, the Taliban were fundamentalist Qur’an students who wanted to convert the entire country to their stone-age version of Islam. Today’s Taliban are predominantly criminals and funded by the drug trade. Most likely, Mullah Omar is still pulling the strings from Quetta in Pakistan. But we are not looking at a homogenous movement. The Taliban pay combatants, and they recruit them from all ethnic groups, not only the Pashtuns. Alliances are made according to short-term needs, as has always been done in Afghanistan. By resorting to oppression and violence, the Taliban are creating the sense of insecurity they need to pursue their criminal activities.

The NATO governments appear to be acting in a paradoxical manner. On the one hand they have always banked on President Hamid Karzai – but on the other hand, they have a history of bypassing him and his cabinet. Now they’re accusing him of powerlessness as well as of abuse of office. Do Western governments bear some of the responsibility for the fragmentation of Afghanistan?
The international community has focused on Karzai for too long, neglecting the provincial level – which is the decisive one. Afghanistan never really had a centralised state, not even under Russian occupation or under the former Taliban regime. After the Taliban fell, hundreds of advisers were dispatched to Kabul, to advise the government, the army, the police. But it also matters what is going on in the provinces, and who has influence there. The Western allies did not pay attention…

…with the result of provincial governors teaming up with warlords, or acting as warlords themselves.
Anyone who wants to succeed in Afghanistan will have to shake some dirty hands. That is inevitable. The drug trade brings a lot of money to a country that is awash in weapons. Very many men have never learned anything except fighting. The Western allies know that, and they act accordingly. Much of the criticism levelled at Karzai is, in my view, hypocrite, which is not to say that I’d praise his integrity, he certainly is corrupt. But the fact that the allies are holding on to him in spite of all problems shows that there simply is no alternative.

Wouldn’t Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate who came in a distant second in the first round of the presidential vote, qualify as an alternative?
Abdullah doesn’t have the necessary support. He’s a Tajik, and despite his past life as a warlord, he is certainly an honourable man. But I doubt Abdullah could really do a better job than Karzai, who as a Pashtun at least has roots in the country’s largest ethnic group. The political situation in Afghanistan is really very difficult, and the road to a more stable setting will be very long, more likely to take 20 years than five. It will be a very long time before we’ll be able to speak of anything like the kind of state we consider normal in the West.

So do elections have any meaning at all?
Yes, they do, because people see at least that they are being asked their opinion every four years. That is certainly a step towards more stability.

Will there be a second round of voting? According to the country’s election commission, Karzai got around 54 % of the vote. However, the EU is demanding inquiries into rampant election fraud, in which both top candidates seem to be involved.
I think a second round is highly unlikely, and truth be told, no one is interested in one. Elections are very expensive, and they motivate rebels to carry out attacks. It proved impossible to make the elections a trouble-free event despite massive efforts. That would hardly be different during the second round. In my view, it matters much more to establish the Afghan army and police. In the long run, that is the only way to enforce something like the state’s legitimate monopoly over the use of force. The army is, in a way, really a school for the nation since it takes in all ethnic groups.

You are painting a fairly depressing picture. Does the NATO mission really make sense?
Yes, it does. Many Afghans have not yet given up on the international community, they hope that they will not be abandoned, that there will be progress and, at some point, security. And of course, the international community has a keen interest in making sure Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for international terrorists again.