Berlin (UPI) Mar 26, 2010
Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a troop surge of 30,000 to win the war but in the United States and in Europe public support for the NATO mission is fading -- also because Taliban are killing an increasing number of Western soldiers.
Rolf Tophoven, the director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, a German security consultancy and Germany's most senior terrorism expert, spent a week in Afghanistan talking to NATO troops and intelligence officers to analyze the security situation on the ground. United Press International's Berlin Correspondent Stefan Nicola spoke to Tophoven about the mission's decreasing popularity, negotiations with the Taliban, the problems linked to the drug trade and the prospect of a U.S. troop withdrawal starting in July 2011. Second of two parts.
UPI. Canada and the Netherlands will pull their troops out of Afghanistan. In Germany, the mission is increasingly criticized. How can politicians reverse that trend and rally their people behind this mission?
Tophoven. First of all they need to inform the population about the importance of the Afghanistan mission and about what soldiers on the ground are accomplishing.
A 20-year-old corporal told me: 'I don't think that the population really knows what kind of work we are doing here.'
Imagine having to sit for seven hours in an armored vehicle, expecting an IED attack any second -- that's significant stress.
The soldiers on the ground want more media support and a clear legal situation. In Germany, that isn't the case. In a worst-case scenario, a German soldier shooting a Taliban or -- in a very difficult situation a civilian -- might face prosecution at home.
Politicians need to create a sound legal basis to back up the troops. The German government for years has talked about a stabilization mission, which this conflict hasn't been anymore for many years. Germany's new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is right when he says that there are war-like conditions in Afghanistan. It's a guerrilla war.
Q. And one NATO could lose.
A. That would be disastrous. The same goes for an overhasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. Giving into the increasing pressure from voters at home by pulling out would come across as a defeat of the West and a victory for the Taliban over the infidels. Afghanistan would once again become a safe haven for terrorists but much more self-confident ones.
Q. In order to defeat the Taliban, you have to have best possible means. There are reports that the German troops are not satisfied with their equipment.
A. And they are right. Much more could be done. The first weak point is the missing airfreight capacity. Besides their limited number of Airbus machines, the Germans have to rent Uzbek civil airplanes to haul their troops into Afghanistan. The long-awaited air lifter Airbus A400M might not make it into Afghanistan any more, although it's much needed.
The same goes for transport helicopters.
The Dingo armored vehicle has done a good job but the Bundeswehr could use more track vehicles and heavy mortar.
Q. There have been some military successes in the Pakistani-Afghan border region, where many Taliban and even al-Qaida are suspected to be hiding. Pakistan has been cracking down on them recently.
A. That's true, Islamabad has been quite active recently. But that's because of the pressure from Washington.
There are still talks between tribal leaders -- possibly Taliban leaders -- and Pakistan's intelligence service ISI. Western intelligence reports claim that low-ranking members of the ISI still meet with Taliban leaders and even support them financially. That's a form of realpolitik. The Pakistani government knows that the Islamists can plot attacks in cities like Islamabad, Peshawar or Lahore any day.
Q. Does negotiating with moderate elements of the Taliban make sense?
A. That's a difficult question. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently met a delegation from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a dangerous terrorist whom the Americans have searched for years. Hekmatyar certainly isn't a moderate.
But in the end, it will be difficult to say who is a moderate and who is a radical Taliban. I can't answer this question and I doubt that politicians can. So Afghans and Pakistanis, when dealing with the Taliban, might have to act according to the proverb: 'Shake the hand you can't cut off.'
Q. Regarding the drug trade, this strategy won't work. Nearly nine years after the U.S.-led invasion, Afghanistan's opium industry is still flourishing, with thousands of people dying in the West from Afghan-made drugs. There can't be any doubt that the drug sector is a major security threat?
A. Certainly not. There are estimates that the Taliban get around $300 million per year from the drug trade. Afghanistan today is home to the world's largest opium plant farming industry. To say it clearly: The Western anti-drug strategy has failed miserably.
Q. Can you explain why?
A. The Afghan drug trade has a decades-long tradition that has deep links within the overall society. NATO has underestimated this linkage.
But there are no easy solutions for this problem. Simply destroying the farmers' poppy fields means taking their livelihoods away and creating new opposition against the West. That would play into the hands of the Taliban, who may be able to recruit new fighters.
But in order to convince the farmers to stop cultivating drug plants, you need to offer them financially viable alternatives. There have been attempts to do that but they have all failed.
Q. In light of the current security situation, how realistic is it that U.S. troops can start leaving the country in the summer of 2011?
A. In my opinion that's a too ambitious timetable. And I suspect that there will be discussions about that date within the U.S. administration.
The 30,000 additional troops Obama brought in have the job to win the fighting against the Taliban in the southern provinces and at the same time train enough Afghan military and police so they can take over security themselves. I don't think that's doable within that short time period. But the troop surge is psychologically smart, because it will enable Washington to pull out smaller patches of soldiers down the road.
Key will be how successful the latest U.S.-led military offensive in Helmand province proves to be. The stronghold Marja has been taken but it now remains to be seen how the entire region can be secured together with Afghan military. If the Americans pull out too early, then the Taliban, who we know can be very patient, will come back.
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Interview: 'Guerilla war' in Afghanistan
Berlin (UPI) Mar 25, 2009
Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a troop surge of 30,000 to win the war but in the United States and in Europe, public support for the NATO mission is fading - also because Taliban are killing an increasing number of Western soldiers. Rolf Tophoven, the director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy and Germany's mos ... read more
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