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John Metzler Archive
Friday, August 7, 2009

High stakes for democracy (and terrorism) as Afghans prepare to vote

PARIS — Warning that Afghanistan could again become the “grand central station of international terrorism,” NATO’s new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the critical political and security situation facing the embattled South Asian land.

Speaking of the role of the Atlantic Alliance in its largest troop deployment ever outside Europe, Rasmussen warned, “if Afghanistan again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, then we can be hit by terrorists again. This is not only a question about the United States, Europe could be hit as well.”

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Now in the nervous countdown to Afghanistan’s presidential elections slated for 20 August, the Taliban terrorists are ramping up attacks on both civilians and the military in an effort to discredit or derail the democratic process. Bombings and attacks have spiked across the country since February resulting in the deaths of 240 foreign soldiers—75 killed in July alone.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stated “We are building peace with the Afghans.” In an interview with the Paris daily Le Figaro, Kouchner added, “After the 11 September 2001 attacks, the objective was to fight against Al-Qaida. Now the international community is engaged in defending the existence of a democratic government.”

Minister Kouchner conceded wisely, “We are not imposing peace but we are creating the conditions for peace to prevail.” Kouchner’s comments came after another French marine was killed bringing to 29 the number of French forces lost in action.

In a separate development key Al-Qaida operative Ayman al-Zawahiri threatened, “France pretends to be a secular country but actually in its true heart hates Muslims…France will pay for its crimes.”

Though the government of Nicolas Sarkozy has been politically supportive of the Afghan mission, France and most other European Union countries have been decidedly lukewarm to calls by the Obama Administration to increase their troop numbers on the ground.

There are over 100,000 multinational forces in Afghanistan under NATO and American command; the largest contingents being American, British, Canadian, French and German along with three dozen other nationalities. Casualties have been mounting as Taliban tactics and bombings have gained sophistication.

A recent British parliamentary report on Afghanistan slammed the operation as having “an unrealistic plan” and “lacking a coherent strategic vision.” Indeed for 9,000 British troops in the country, the forces are tasked with too many different missions, functions and roles which lack a core philosophy. Another shortfall has been a lack of helicopters to aid mobility and medical evacuation.

Regarding the upcoming election Kouchner said, “If the Afghans see the vote as normal as possible, this will be a big failure for the Taliban.” The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on America, the UN Security Council authorized a multi-national military mission.

But now what? Democracy yes, but are the Afghan army and police now being trained, capable enough to carry on alone without significant long-term foreign assistance?

Compare for a moment the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq is primarily an Arab land, mostly Muslim but with a small Christian minority. Yet having far deeper secular roots and revivable institutions, Iraq moreover has natural resources, especially petroleum, which can ultimately rebuild the shattered country from the legacy of Saddam’s rule. Following the 2007 U.S. troop surge which significantly turned the tide against the insurgents, the country has been far calmer, but still not totally secure.

Afghanistan on the other hand, while totally Muslim, is primarily a tribally based society where loyalties and responsibilities are based by the village, valley and province, not by any Western concept of nationality. Afghanistan’s tribal quilt of loyalties and ethnic differences pose a constant challenge to Hamid Karzai’s central government in Kabul. Resources are sparse, poverty is rampant, and the narcotics trade is flourishing.

While the Obama Administration has rotated some military units from Iraq and sent them to Afghanistan, the question remains just how much more deeply the United States and the Europeans can and should get deeper into the Afghan vortex. Given that neither Washington nor the Europeans have the political capital to sustain a long term and costly military deployment, there comes the looming reality that the Afghans must carry the burden themselves, and may I add the sooner the better.

NATO’s Rasmussen, a former Danish Prime Minister, stressed that “My criteria for success is that we can gradually hand over responsibility of security to Afghans themselves.” Yet he added, “We will support the Afghan people as long as it takes.”

That’s a very open statement given Afghan history.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for
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