Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Nagging NATO instead of rethinking Afghanistan," December 4, 2006.

This week, NATO met in Riga, Latvia for its 19th Summit.

The summer fighting season in Afghanistan gave NATO commanders plenty of opportunity to realize that the Taliban was back, and last week was time to consolidate the lessons learned.

After coalition PR specialists had finished calling the Taliban cowards for being smart enough not to fight the kind of pitched battle for a piece of territory that NATO had been trained to fight, what drifted back from campaigns like Operation Medusa and Musa Qala were words like "tough," "resilient," "resourceful," and even "professional."

Considering that American troops have already been in Afghanistan longer than they were in World War II, and despite the Canadian media's complaints to the contrary, casualties have been remarkably light so far--orders of magnitude lighter than World War II, than Korea, Vietnam, lighter than the Soviet Union's Afghan catastrophe, lighter even than the shorter war in Iraq.

Riga appeared to be an ideal opportunity to reassess--a time to rebalance the mission. In an open letter to the Secretary General, Human Rights Watch urged NATO "to measure its performance at providing security by the ability of ordinary Afghans to gain access to education, health care, and legitimate work opportunities and not by the number of insurgents killed."

It was a time to reexamine the alliance's stance toward the full range of proposals about poppy cultivation, extermination and licensing. It was time to reconsider what CARE Canada and the Senlis Council, both of which maintain an active presence in a number of Afghan locations, have said flatly is the failure to win Afghan hearts and minds especially in the southern part of the counrty. It was a time to assess the ongoing effect of land mines, cluster bombs and other unexploded weapons and the use of depleted uranium. A facility to deal with landmines is the only presence that remains of the Red Cross mission to Afghanistan. These are not minor concerns of inconsequential agencies.

It was also time to raise relevant questions about corruption in the Karzai govenment and especially in the new police force. It was time, as the Human Rights Watch letter detailed, to ensure that detainees are treated in accordance with international standards; it was time to ensure that civilians receive maximum protection from and compensation for the effects of combat operations and especially to consider the needs of some 15,000 families—approximately 80,000 people--made homeless in the south by a water shortage from the renewed drought and the effects of fighting.

A new report by Oxfam intended to influence the NATO summit , pointed out that More than half of all Afghan children still do not go to school despite a five-fold increase in enrolments since 2001.

Of particular concern is the difficulty in recruiting new teachers. Morale is low amongst Afghanistan's existing teachers. Their pay is very poor. In Daikundi province in central Afghanistan most teachers are paid US$38 per month, and many have to pay a bribe before they are given their salaries.

There are also up to 20,000 "ghost" teachers who collect their salaries but don't go to work, or who collect more than one salary. Oxfam is calling for better budgeting systems, more consultation and the creation of a national database of teachers to stamp out corruption in the education system.

Schools are supposed to be free but in some areas up to 85 per cent of schools charge. The average fee per student is $6 per year, compared to the average Afghan income of only $293 per year.

As the date for the NATO summit approached, it even seemed opportune to reassess the alliance's attitude toward Pakistan and the border region defined by a nineteenth century colonial relic known as the Durand Line. William Lind, a conservative strategist and theorist of Fourth Generation Warfare raises serious questions about whether or not Taliban insurgents are actually using Pakistan as a sanctuary. For a brief moment, it seemed as though Britain, Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan were actively pursuing negotiations that included the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, was reported to have said in private briefings to foreign ministers of some Nato member states that the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan and Nato is bound to fail. He advised against sending more troops.

Despite all this oppourtunity for self-awareness and learning from experience to produce an improved stratgegy, the temptation to nag NATO members for not pulling their weight was evidently too great to resist.

On September 28, an informal meeting of NATO defence ministers in Potoroz, Slovenia agreed to expand Nato's mission into the volatile east of Afghanistan. But the expansion did not represent a new strategy. The ministers simply agreed to place some 12,000 mostly US forces, already in the region, under NATO command. (Telegraph Sep 29 06).

The next day, In a stunning, fit of diplomatic petulence, Ronald Neumann, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that European nations must not turn "coward" and "run away" from fighting terrorism in Afghanistan.

Then, just before the meeting in Riga, British Conservative shadow defence minister Liam Fox said, "NATO's reputation is on the line."

I didn't know NATO had a reputation as an army. It has always seemed like an anachronistic Cold War organization devoted mostly to war games and military exercises designed along lines similar to World War II in Europe with the addition of nuclear weapons.

NATO has far less experience in real war zones than the UN. The only time in its 57 year history it has ever engaged in combat was in the Balkans.

Was that a success?

As Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, is reputed to have said when asked for his opinion about the French Revolution, "It's too early to tell."

France, Germany, Spain, and Italy have each in different ways declined to increase their troop strength in Afghanistan except in case of emergencies.

Maybe they are trying to tell us something.

Maybe we will see an increase in the number of emergencies.

Speaking at at university in Riga on the first day of the summit, President Bush said, "For NATO to succeed, its commanders on the ground must have the
resources and flexibility they need to do their job....Today Afghanistan is NATO's most important military operation, and by standing together in Afghanistan, we'll protect our people, defend our freedom, and send a clear message to the extremists the forces of freedom and decency will prevail."

Nothing about rebalancing the mission. Nothing about the opium trade or landmines. Nothing about corruption. Nothing about illegal detentions. Not one new idea.

However, according to the Telegraph, "the war that was once considered a slam-dunk success is now very much in doubt" (Nov 29 06)

Some of the early discussions Tuesday focused on Germany, which has troops in the safer, northern part of Afghanistan and has resisted sending troops to combat in the south.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated those concerns during an appearance on Germany's N24 television, though she appeared to give some ground by pledging to do what she could to ensure NATO success.

"In emergencies we can help out in the south," she said. "But our place is in the north, where 40% of Afghanistan's population lives."

NATO's supreme allied commander, U.S. Marine Gen. James L. Jones, told reporters that it was a mistake to blame all of the country's troubles on the Taliban, listing drug traffickers, common criminals and tribal warriors as additional culprits.

"We will also not falter in making Afghanistan more secure, where Estonian soldiers are helping to protect the welfare of Afghan citizens, again, together, hand in hand with the United States," said Estonian President Toomas Ilves, an Ivy League-educated former English teacher who made his remarks during Bush's visit to Tallinn, the country's capital.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi said Italy would not allow its 1,900 troops in Afghanistan to be moved by NATO commanders to other parts of the country, rejecting a call by President George W. Bush.

"The countries there are firmly committed in areas that they're assigned to," Prodi told reporters in Riga.... "The strategy has been chosen and no one can talk about changing this strategy. This is the position of other countries as well, including Germany, France and Spain."

Germany's contingent is stationed in northeast Afghanistan, while the Italians are in the capital of Kabul and in the northwest, the Spanish are in the northwest and the French are mostly in Kabul. The U.S., Canada, the U.K., and the Netherlands are facing greater Taliban resistance in the south, and NATO would like to send more troops there.

"To succeed in Afghanistan, NATO allies must provide the forces NATO military commanders require," Bush said during a press conference in Tallinn, Estonia, before he traveled to Riga yesterday. "Like Estonia, member nations must accept difficult assignments if we expect to be successful."

Estonia has 90 troops in Afghanistan.

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