Friday, May 25, 2007

NATO in Afghanistan

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung (CDU), here with the Catholic Military Bishop Franz Josef Jung (Photo: Bundeswehr/Grauwinkel )

On Sunday, the German news-discussion program of
Sabine Christiansen featured a panel discussion of the German participation in the NATO intervention in Afghanistan („Tod am Hindukusch - Bundeswehr raus aus Afghanistan?"). The immediate occasion for the panel was the deaths of three German soldiers in a suicide attack in Gardez, Afghanistan, the biggest German loss there in several years: Afghan suicide bombing kills 14 Los Angeles Times/AP 05/21/07.

A suicide bomber blew himself up Sunday in a crowded market in eastern Afghanistan, killing 14 people and wounding 31, officials and witnesses said.

The attack, which destroyed or damaged about 30 shops, came a day after a suicide bomber in northern Afghanistan killed three German soldiers and seven bystanders.
The German soldiers were shopping in a public market, which is part of the kind of interaction with the population that is required for classic counterinsurgency operations for ultimately be affected. But it also runs counter to "force protection" needs, and so requires some basic levels of security, i.e., reasonable safety from suicide bombings, to work.

The participants included the German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, from Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party; Oskar Lafontaine, the Bundestag caucus head (Fraktionschef) for the Left Party, which I suppose is still reasonable to describe as the "postcommunist" party, though Lafontaine himself was for years a major leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD); Peter Scholl-Latour, writer, journalist and former editor of Stern magazine; Jürgen Trittin, Bundestag deputy caucus head for the Greens and a guy with a reputation of being something of a firebrand (Bürgerschreck); Niels Annen, an SPD Bundestag representative and a member of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee; and, Wilfried von Bredow, political science professor at Philipps-Universität Marburg, billed as a "military expert".

Germany's current national government is a "Grand Coalition" government, which means it's a partnership of the SPD and CDU, with the CDU being the senior partner and therefore the party of the Chancellor.

This was a fascinating exchange to watch. My own view is that in 2001, a massive intervention in Afghanistan was possible and necessary. Most all of us who favored such an intervention at the time probably underestimated how difficult it would be even in the best case. But the world situation was uniquely favorable at that time, with virtually all Muslim governments willing to help or at least be restrained in trying to hinder such an effort. Pakistan and Iran were willing to cooperate with the US and NATO there, which is no longer the case, for the most part (though Pakistan is still officially on our side).

But you only need to list the "if's" that would have had to fall in place for it to work reasonably well to realize that it was a hopeless project under the direction of the Cheney-Bush government. If we had concentrated effectively on wiping out the the Al Qaida cadres in the Battle of Tora Bora, and if we had pushed hard for progress on settling the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, and if we had made a major new effort for an Israeli-Palestinian peace including a tough stand against settlements in the West Bank, and if Dick Cheney hadn't decided to invade Iraq..., etc., etc.

You get the picture. It was never going to work with Dick Cheney in charge. So, we're in our sixth year of war in Afghanistan. The alleged national government of Afghanistan has still to use American forces to protect their own President, he not having sufficiently loyal troops yet to handle the job. Karzai's government has little effective power beyond the borders of Kabul, and how much he has there is questionable. And one of the major topics of discussion in Sunday's program was how the American military approach in "Operation Enduring Freedom" (OEF) was not just failing but destroying any remaining possibility of a good outcome.

The positions of the parties in Germany toward the Afghanistan War are caught in the tension between the need to preserve European Union unity on Afghanistan policy, which includes some level of support to the US effort there, and the realization that this can't go on forever. Defense Minister Jung's stock justifications of the war would sound pretty familiar to American audiences: we have a strategy, our plan is working, we need to give it time, little girls are going to school there, some soldiers have died so to honor their sacrifice we have to have more soldiers die, yadda, yadda. After the debates we've had in the United States for the last 4-plus years over the Iraq War, this stuff has become stale and cynical for my ears.

Jung would fit right in chatting with Republican members of Congress on FOX News, though. He said at one point, „Wir müssen das Vertrauen der Menschen gewinnen. Wir sind hier nicht Besatzer, sondern Befreier." (We have to win people's trust. We are not occupiers here [in Afghanistan], but rather liberators.") God, the Republicans have made that such a cynical slogan in the Iraq War, I almost automatically disregard what people chanting this kind of slogan have to say. See what I mean about how we would fit right in with the Republicans?

He did make the concession at one point that maybe the US tactics in OAF - bombing villages and blowing up civilian noncombatants to get at a few guerrillas - don't help very much. He reminded my of some of our "moderate" Republicans Senators generously conceding that, well, gee whiz, they can understand why people might be concerned about some of the problems in the Iraq War.

Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Wilfried von Bredow was the only other participant who basically took a "stay the course" perspective. He came off as the classic old guy who was happy to sound "tough" by delivering pronouncements about how necessary it is for someone else to risk their lives. This tired and phony analogy could have come straight from any airhead on FOX News: „1945 hätte man gesagt, dass es völlig sinnlos ist den Deutschen Demokratie beizubringen.“ ("In 1945, people said that it was completely senseless to produce a German democracy.") Uh, just who was it who said that, Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Wilfried von Bredow? Not that it matters; he was just throwing out a hack talking point.

Oskar Lafontaine and Peter Scholl-Latour both were opposed to continuing the intervention in Afghanistan. They took different approaches, and both their approaches are different than mine. But I think their position is the only practical one at this point. Lafontaine emphasized that the conventional-war methods of the OEF forces, i.e., US forces, that involve air attacks on "terrorists" that in practice produce significant numbers of noncombatant casualties, are making any long-term progress impossible. Lafontaine was seeking to distinguish the Left Party position by being provocative, so he described the US approach as also a form of "terrorism".

Scholl-Latour, along with the other participants, rejected Lafontaine's "terrorism" label for the OEF operations. But he also described a recent visit to the Afghanistan, where he observed that the ISAF (European) forces were, well, not very observable because they didn't have a very obvious presence. He talked about how little actual control the Afghan government actually exercised and how limited the actual development projects had been. He said, „Die jetzige afghanische Regierung steht vor dem Fall.“ ("The current Afghan government is one the verge of collapse.")

Both Lafontaine and Scholl-Latour criticized the entire concept of the "war on terrorism". Lafontaine said, „Wenn man den Terror bekämpfen will muss man sich erst einmal Klarheit verschaffen was Terror ist. [...] Die Bundesregierung hat diese Frage ein Jahr lang nicht beantwortet.“ (If you want to fight terror, you have to really determine very clearly what terror is. The [German] Federal Government has not answered this question for a year now.") In saying "for a year", he's presumably referring specifically to Angela Merkel's Grand Coalition government.

The most interesting positions were those of the SPD's Niels Annen and especially the Greens' Jürgen Trittin. Both parties had committed to the Afghanistan intervention during the period of the previous "red-green" government and therefore they would find it difficult even in the best of circumstance to just say, it's time to throw in the cards.

Though the SPD's Annen was clearly positioning to take such a stand. Both he and Trittin were in strong agreement that the OEF approach was flatly counterproductive. Although both the American and European forces are under a combined NATO command now, Annen and Trittin especially emphasized the distinction between the ISAF/European foces and the (mainly) American OEF forces. They plainly have lost all confidence in the American counterinsurgency effort there.

Although the Greens are partially-correctly seen as a pacifist party. But Trittin was the most emphatic about the need to continue the Afghanistan War. At the same time, he was the one who made the current dilemma most explicit. He stressed the need to show continued European goodwill for Afghan political and economic development and the problems that could come from Afghanistan reverting back to its pre-2001 as a haven for transnational terrorists like Al Qaida. Trittin said:

Wenn wir aus Afghanistan rausgehen, beendet das den Krieg dort nicht. Das ist ein völliger Irrtum. Dann gibt es dort Kämpfe zwischen den Warlords im Norden und den Taliban im Süden und mittendrin die von Herrn Scholl-Latour so geschätzten Opiumhändler. Die Vorstellung, dass man sich dort zurückziehen würde und der Krieg und die leiden der Bevölkerung wäre dann vorüber, ist eine Verharmlosung und ein Zynismus sondergleichen.

[If we leave Afghanistan, that will not end the war. That is a complete error. Then there would be fights between the warlords in the north and the Taliban in the south and in the middle would be the opium dealers that Herr Scholl-Latour appreciates so much. The idea that we could pull out of there and the war and the sufferings of the population would be over then is equally over-opitmistic and cynical.]
He also was the one who mentioned that the American commitment to Afghanistan remained strong, noting even that the Congressional Democrats who argued for withdrawal from Iraq also favor increasing the war effort in Afghanistan. At the same time, he articulated more emphatically than anyone else who very counterproductive the OEF/American effort there is.

For those of us who have followed the US debate over the Iraq War closely, Trittin's position will sound sadly familiar. Trittin says that it's impossible for NATO to have a successful effort in Afghanistan so long as the curent OEF counterinsurgency effort continues. And yet he also says that there is no immediate prospect of the Americans ending the OEF effort. Yet he favors continuing the European participation at the same time he says the American approach is making success impossible.

Does that make any sense? No, it doesn't. Not in itself.

For the SPD and Greens, from their policy perspective making Afghanistan a reasonably successful state that doesn't harbor terrorists is an important goal. They also don't want to be seen as recklessly "anti-American" in insisting on pulling out their NATO commitment, which grew directly out of their declared solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 attacks - a soliodarity that the Cheney-Bush administration has surely never seen itself obliged to reciprocate. Annen said, „Es geht in Afghanistan darum einen politischen Prozess zu unterstützen. Das ist nicht nur unsere Entscheidung gewesen, sondern eine der Vereinten Nationen." ("In Afghanistan we're supporting a political process. That was not only our decision, but one of the United Nations.")

Another factor is that the Greens back in the 1980s were more outspoken than the SPD in their own solidarity with democratic dissidents in East Germany and other Warsaw Pact countries. They don't want to show less commitment to defending human rights in the Muslim world than the SPD. Conversely, the SPD doesn't want to be stuck looking like they are again perhaps insufficiently concerned with human rights in comparison to other more pragmatic considerations.

But since both the SPD and especially Green positions - at least as expressed by Annen and Trittin - more-or-less explicitly recognize the hopelesss of the current situation, how can they in good conscience continue to put their own country's soldiers in harm's way in pursuit of that goal? It's hard to see how they will be able to continue their current stances for long.

Sabine Christiansen's Web site at this writing doesn't have a full transcript available. But it does include quotes from the various participants that give an idea of their positions. For example:

Jung: „Deutsche Soldaten müssten bei ihrem Einsatz auch künftig Risiken eingehen.“ (German soldiers must also run risk in the future in their mission.")

Scholl-Latour: „Am besten wären die Truppen schon längst abgezogen." (The best thing would have been to pull out the troops long ago.)

Trittin: „Soldaten sollten Fußpatrouillen unterlassen und nur noch in gepanzerten Fahrzeugen unterwegs sein.“ ("Soldiers should stop making foot patrols and only go out in armored vehicles.") I would also count this as effectively a recognition that success for the mission has become impossible.

See also
Zweifel am Afghanistan-Einsatz wachsen 21.05.07.


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