About the same time as the visiting German defense minister was receiving a NATO briefing on the need for Berlin to increase its Afghan contingent, President Hamid Karzai was giving an interview to the German newspaper Die Welt in which he argued against the need for additional NATO forces in Afghanistan.
"I'm not sure that sending more troops is the right answer," he was quoted as saying. "More than anything else, we need help to rebuild our human capital...our army, our police force, our administration structure, our judiciary and so on."
No wonder the NATO command finds it difficult to work with the Afghan government in the fight against the Taliban. Karzai, an intelligent and sophisticated leader of considerable personal courage, has decided that he needs to establish his independence from the very political and military instruments that have kept him in power -- and most likely, alive.
The assignment of Lord Paddy Ashdown to a similar role he had held in Bosnia as a special United Nations envoy was dropped at the last moment after negative remarks by Karzai were leaked at the annual economic forum in Davos. Ashdown had been quite successful in the special assignment in the Balkans and his willingness to take on the ticklish Afghan assignment was greeted internationally with considerable hope -- except by the president of Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai has been pursuing a rather contrary game plan, to say the least. An American project to eradicate the opium poppy crop through aerial spraying was blocked by the office of the Afghan president. Karzai then went public with an attack on the British military/civil efforts in poppy-growing Helmand province as "counter productive."
THIS POSTURING by a leader who has suffered from local press attacks as a lackey of the Americans and British may be understandable. But however clever this gambit may appear to him and his advisers, it is extremely dangerous at a time when both American and British politicians are looking hard at their nations' military commitments in the Middle East.
To add to this diplomatic mess was the recent comment to an American reporter by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates: "I am worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counter-insurgency operations [in Afghanistan]." This rare foot-in-mouth display by the usually circumspect Gates brought instant reactions from British, Canadian, and Dutch officialdom.
"Bloody outrageous," fumed Patrick Mercer, a British Conservative MP and former Army officer. The reaction from Canada and the Netherlands, to put it mildly, was less restrained. As can be imagined, the Pentagon beat a hasty retreat indicating that in no way did the Secretary mean to malign these nations' troops who just happen to have been the only NATO allies carrying on any serious fighting in the Taliban-infested battle area of south Afghanistan.
Gates's unfortunate comments indirectly insulted the elite units of Canadian and Dutch special operations forces and, most illogically, the famed British battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles serving in Helmand. The best the Pentagon could do was to insist their Secretary was "not criticizing any specific country." Groans could be heard all over Foggy Bottom.
According to a recent study co-chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and the highly respected career diplomat and former UN Ambassador, Thomas Pickering, the combat-designated portion of the NATO force in Afghanistan is far too small to be effective against the Taliban's tribally protected guerrilla forces.
PRESIDENT KARZAI'S statement to the contrary appears really to have been meant as a gibe at Pakistan's continued inability/unwillingness to deny sanctuary to Taliban insurgents. In that sense it is true that more NATO troops will not solve Afghanistan's complicated problem unless Pakistan can secure its own borders with its northern neighbor.
Pakistan still needs to play the anvil role to the hammer of the allied forces. Reconciliation with some elements of the Taliban may be possible as long as sufficient pressure can be maintained. However, the core Taliban cadre, controlling about half their forces, must be destroyed in the field.
Hamid Karzai's government must be able to exert its authority beyond the immediate environs of their capital. This demands both political and military control through a cohesive strategy. Lip service is paid to this goal by all parties, but that's where agreement appears to end.
The truth is that more NATO troops are needed in both training and combat roles. Absent that reinforcement, the broader strategic aims are beyond reach. Afghanistan cannot be secured on the cheap.
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