More weapons won't help

German non-governmental organisations think that Afghanistan needs fundamental political change to put an end to the escalation of military violence. Civilian structures have to be reinforced – a task best carried out by the Afghanis themselves.

[ By Jürgen Lieser and Peter Runge ]

German policymakers have paid a lot of attention to Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001. Up to then, there had been little interest. The fundamentalist Taliban had been internationally isolated and reviled since taking power in the mid-1990s, and their inhuman policies and the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the country were merely registered with regret and resignation.

In 2001, the US invaded the country. Soon afterwards, other NATO countries sent in troops. Nonetheless, events in Afghanistan are giving renewed cause for concern. For a long time, the north, where the German troops handle security issues in nine provinces, was considered quiet. That is no longer so. Violence is mounting – including suicidal assaults on German soldiers. The Taliban and other armed groups are popping up even there.

In October, German non-governmental aid agencies issued a warning about the increasingly violent situation in Afghanistan. They particularly said that the security situation for civilians was getting worse, and that representatives of international organisations were increasingly under threat.

This situation seems paradoxical: the more soldiers were sent to Afghanistan, the worse the situation got. In mid-2008, 65,000 foreign soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan – four times as many as in 2004. Nonetheless, the number of assassinations and suicide attacks is skyrocketing (Hippler 2008). ACBAR, the umbrella organisation of aid agencies active in Afghanistan, estimates that a thousand civilians were killed in skirmishes in the first seven months of 2008 alone.

In the fight against rebels, NATO is increasingly tolerating civilian deaths. This attitude does not contribute to their popularity in the country. Moreover, it violates international human rights. The Afghani population increasingly rejects the “war on terror”.

The distinction between the fight against terror under the mandate of Opera-tion Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is being blurred. The result is that all foreign soldiers are now considered as occupiers. Reckless OEF attacks now often promote terror as much as they combat it, because high rates of civilian casualties make the people resent all foreign troops. Accordingly, they are more willing to resort to vio-lence themselves.

In the meantime, many decision makers in the West understand that the war will not be won militarily. A number of countries, such as Canada and the Netherlands, want to successively pull out troops from Afghanistan with the aim of total withdrawal in the midterm. Meanwhile, other countries are expanding their military commitment. In October, the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, increased the number of troops the Federal Government may deploy in Afghanistan to 4,500.

VENRO, the German Association of Development NGOs, believes that the next time NATO asks for more soldiers in Afghanistan, Germany should point out that violence is only escalating. The government should develop a midterm exit strategy. And the OEF, which is entirely counterproductive, should be done away with as soon as possible.

One of the biggest problems NGOs face in Afghanistan has to do with the concept of “civil-military cooperation”. By launching mixed civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Kundus and Faizabad in late 2003, Germany wanted to contribute to reconstruction, the spread of democracy, and the stabilisation of the central government’s authority. The PRTs have obviously failed.

Their failure is especially problematic because the PRT concept mixes up the mandates of civilian and military actors. For instance, the German Armed Forces also perform tasks related to reconstruction and food aid for strategic reasons – with the goal to win the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan. In doing so, however, they may endanger the independence of humanitarian aid, which must not be based on political or military concerns. This intertwin-ing of different mandates leads to rising security risks for NGOs.

Spiralling downwards

Hearts and minds are being lost. In the beginning, the common people in Afghanistan welcomed German soldiers. Today, stones are hurled at German troops. They are viewed as occupiers, and foreign aid workers are seen as their henchmen. A number of humanitarian organisations have already pulled out of Afghanistan because they were weakened by the general lack of trust and had become the target of attacks.

Beyond any doubt, progress has been made since 2002:
– democratic structures have been set up,
– the government in Kabul has presented a national development strategy,
– 4,000 km of roads have been constructed,
– a large number of boys and girls go to school, and
– 85 % of the population has access to health care.

Unfortunately, one has to see such progress in the light of population growth, urban migration and – most depressingly rising violence. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

State building has to be supported over the long term if efforts to secure peace, restore infrastructure, and promote development are to be successful. The international community has to work to combat widespread, extreme poverty and strengthen military, police, and economic institutions in Afghanistan. Afghanistan needs its own – properly trained, equipped, and paid – military and police.

NATO troops will obviously not be able to win the war. The focus of German and international support for Afghanistan should therefore shift to the civilian sector. Military expenditures are roughly four times greater than those for civilian purposes – and that has to change.

Not only the state, but civil society too needs to be strengthened. Many of the international NGOs in Afghanistan have been working there for many years. They fall back on structures and partner organisations that have grown over the years and know their way around. However, Afghani civil society can only be strengthened meaningfully if all ethnic and religious groups, including minorities, are taken into account.

The Karzai government has lost credibility, especially among ethnic minorities. The government is doing little to protect human rights and the rule of law. The international community should make sure that Afghanistan's government performs these duties, especially towards women and girls. The amnesty granted to war criminals in 2007 should, in contrast, be revoked.

Indeed, international trust in the Karzai administration is also dwindling in the light of corruption and international drug trafficking. The international community has to put more pressure on Kabul and the provincial governments to do so much more to combat widespread corruption. On the other hand, Karzai deserves support in his battle against drugs cultivation. He is right that plantations of alternative pro­ducts must have priority over the destruction of poppy fields.

For peace and reconciliation to take place in Afghanistan, comprehensive dis-course must involve all groups in society. Moderate Taliban also have to take part – initially at the local level and as soon as possible at the national level.

US President-elect Barack Obama has announced that an additional 7,000 troops will be sent to Afghanistan. Under his administration, victory in this war is to be a priority. In his speech in Berlin last July, he said that the US would not be able to solve the conflict alone and therefore needs support, from Germany also. German NGOs do not believe in the approach of boosting the military first in order to negotiate later.

But at least Obama is talking about a solution based on negotiations that will include two of Afghanistan’s neighbours: Iran and Pakistan. Such plans suggest that we can expect a new, productive approach to regional reconciliation. Hopefully, Obama understands that one cannot bomb people into peace. At any rate, chances have improved for Germany to promote an international paradigm change.

This essay is based on a VENRO policy paper of October 2008.

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