West's Role in Afghanistan Needs Re-Examining
HEIDELBERG, Germany — It seems agreed here that the overwhelming majority of Germans are against any expansion of the German role in Afghanistan if it means German troops in combat. Germany’s soldiers complain about this because it puts them personally in an invidious position among most of the rest of the NATO forces in that country. It also creates confusion and inefficiencies in attempting to run a war in which only a part of the available troops can be sent into the combat zones where they are most needed.
The Taliban are increasingly in control of the south of the country and now are closing a ring around Kabul itself, aiming to cut the capital off from the rest of Afghanistan, their strategy when the Russians occupied the nation. The new American brigade of 4,000 men will go to the protection of Kabul, where embassies, official buildings and the like have in recent months had high concrete walls built around them — each to have its own fortified “green zone.”
Last weekend the insurgents blew up 100 trucks loaded with supplies at a U.S. depot in Peshawar in Pakistan, an hour from the Afghan border on a main supply route passing through the Khyber Pass region controlled by Taliban factions. The rebels are also harassing the roads passing through Pakistan from the port of Karachi, so that NATO is forced to increase the supply traffic through Central Asia, where Russian cooperation is necessary.
The main German problem, however, is with the transformation of their mission, which began as a peacekeeping, stabilization and development effort, not a war against Afghan insurgents. This is a touchy point, of great political significance in the war and among allies, so that some U.S. commanders are careful in distinguishing between “Insurgents” and the “Terrorists” — al-Qaida and its recruits in the tribal territories. Those are supposed to be the enemy. The Taliban want the foreigners out of their country.
Why are the allies waging war against the largest of the native ethnic groups in Afghanistan, automatically benefiting the Pashtuns’ traditional ethnic rivals? The NATO answer is that the allies didn’t set out to fight a war against the Pashtuns. It just happened that way.
NATO is fighting to protect a legitimate government in Kabul, internationally recognized, which is committed to modern standards of women’s rights, nondiscriminatory education, etc. Unfortunately these good things are all but impossible for foreign armies to install and protect in a country where most people are illiterate and living spiritually in the Middle Ages.
Admirable as NATO intentions may be, this is not what the intervention in Afghanistan was supposed to be about, and it may be questioned to what extent the presence of Western armies has actually promoted such ends, or whether overall the effect has been to undermine development and degrade the condition in which the people of the country are compelled to live.
The truth is that German soldiers are in Afghanistan because the United States demanded that they go there, and for nearly 60 years Germany has supported Washington in nearly everything the United States has wanted to do. This is considered on both sides as an inevitable consequence of the Second World War.
No one puts the matter so crudely these days. Officially, the United States is in Afghanistan to fight al-Qaida and defend a legitimate government. Officially, the argument goes, Germany is in Afghanistan because if the Taliban are allowed once again to take power in that country, international terrorism will be strengthened and the danger of terrorist attacks in Western Europe will increase.
Better to fight the enemy in Afghanistan than in Heidelberg, Berlin or Paris. (An innocent bystander might suggest that Heidelberg, Berlin and Paris are the best places to fight them, since that is where they can do the most harm.)
The other rationale for Germans and other Europeans to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan is the Washington argument that Europe has been for years defended by the United States and payback time has arrived. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been no threat to Europe other than from radicalized young Muslims, often members of their own population, stirred up by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
George Bush’s global war on terror now is a hopelessly confused affair in which nearly everyone is fighting for misconceived reasons and for objectives impossible to attain. Outraged Muslims seem to think they are defending the Prophet from Western attack and can in the end conquer the West. Western armies are in Iraq and Afghanistan because their political leaders want to make democracy prevail in the Islamic world. Is it possible that the new American administration could actually re-examine what its serious and attainable purposes are? Could it consult with such increasingly reluctant allies as Germany, Britain and Canada, and listen to what they have to say?
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.