Afghan war reaches a tipping point
By M K Bhadrakumar
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) handed down to the Taliban a big
political victory as a result of the air strikes in the northern province of
Kunduz on Friday, which left over 100 people dead and injured. The Taliban
propaganda portrayed the incident as "an intentional massacre".
However, the political impact is felt on several planes. These include, first
and foremost, the sense of shock in Germany, where well over two-thirds of
people already favor a withdrawal of the 4,500-strong German contingent from
Afghanistan. Given the burden of history that Germany is fated to carry, the
mere suggestion of the Bundeswehr having committed a war crime abroad becomes a
sensitive issue. The political class in Berlin will keenly watch how the
groundswell of public opinion pans out in
the federal election due on September 27.
Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded on Sunday that the international community
needed to "apply pressure [on Kabul] in order to find a way to get the Afghans
to appreciate that they have to take responsibility step by step ... so that
the international engagement can be reduced".
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir of the center-left Social Democratic
Party, who is Merkel's main challenger in the election, has been saying for a
while that if his party emerges victorious, "As chancellor, I would push for us
to develop plans with the new Afghan government to establish a clear
perspective for the duration and end of the military engagement."
Steinmeir said Berlin would push such an agenda during the forthcoming
negotiations over the extension of the so-called Afghan Compact, the
international aid treaty which expires next year. Steinmeir said that while it
may seem "irresponsible" to set an absolute date for German withdrawal from the
war, he wanted to negotiate a "concrete schedule" and he thoroughly disagreed
with the stance of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union that the Bundeswehr may
have to stay in Afghanistan for another five to 10 years.
But Berlin's policies will influence other European countries. Britain's
Telegraph newspaper reported on Sunday, quoting defense sources in London, that
both the United States and British governments no longer expected any of NATO's
main partner nations to send more troops to serve in the combat zones in
Indeed, a pall of gloom descended on the two-day European Union (EU) foreign
ministers meeting in Stockholm over the weekend. According to reports, the EU
ministers showed "no optimism or idealism" in their speeches, which were laced
with depressing and "occasionally grisly anecdotal evidence" of the war that is
going horribly wrong. The disputed presidential elections in Afghanistan and
growing Afghan intolerance toward foreign involvement - and now the Kunduz
incident - dominated the Stockholm discussions.
Bundeswehr draws blood
The Kunduz incident has triggered a US-German rift as to whether the German
commanders or the US pilot were at fault. The German ground commander ordered
the strike after assessing the "target" on the basis of the image relayed by
the US aircraft, whereas, according to the rules of business, the US pilot has
the ultimate discretion to ignore if he isn't convinced about the "target". The
issue may become an inner-NATO tussle. The Germans are on the defensive to
explain why they ordered an airstrike at all. They and US officials have tried
to deflect the blame.
No military likes to be branded as cowardly, yet that is what US critics
insinuate about the Bundeswehr's record in northern Afghanistan. Military
analyst Anthony Cordesman, who advises the top US commander in Afghanistan,
General Stanley McChrystal, lost no time in lampooning the Bundeswehr's record
in northern Afghanistan.
Cordesman said German soldiers lacked "situational and combat experience" to
confront the Taliban on the ground. "They're as oriented toward staying in
their armored vehicles as any group I've met. They're not active enough to
present much of a threat to the Taliban most of the time," Cordesman mocked.
The German Defense Ministry pushed back the US criticism, saying it was
self-serving. These are unusual public exchanges for two NATO allies. Merkel's
statement on Sunday suggests that Germany will take to the high ground rather
than be the butt of ridicule.
Meanwhile, the ground reality is that the situation in northeastern Afghanistan
has dramatically worsened in the past two-year period and the German contingent
is now taking the blame. The Germans used to think that the war was far away as
the northern region has been tranquil so far. They often taunted US commanders
in southeastern Afghanistan that the war against terror could also be fought
through peaceful means. This thesis has now been blown to pieces, as Kunduz
province has become a dangerous place for German soldiers.
To quote Germany's mass circulation daily Bild, "The Americans - who still have
the massive German criticism of them ringing in their ears - can barely conceal
their schadenfreude: look the good Germans too are responsible for
The Germans never wanted to get involved in combat, but they now find
themselves in the thick of it. "We are involved in gun battles every other day.
We are being shot at and we are shooting back, and we are killing a few of
them," Der Spiegel quoted a German officer as saying. As the weekly put it,
"The Bundeswehr must now come to terms with the fact that Germans have
previously found difficult to accept: winning the war in Afghanistan requires
engaging in active combat."
On the other hand, the Taliban are spreading their wings in the northern
provinces, all according to a plan. The stage has come when it is important for
the Taliban to demonstrate in political terms that they can expand the war to
places of their choice. In military terms, the Taliban tactic aims at
Again, the Taliban are establishing a presence on the routes through which
NATO's supply lines pass from the north - from Russia and Central Asian states.
They are copying a tactic effectively used by the Afghan mujahideen in the
jihad against Soviet forces in the 1980s.
The Taliban are also moving "foreign fighters" to the north as part of a
calculated strategy, rather than this happening due to pressure from the
Pakistani military in the tribal areas in the south and southeast. Afghan
Defense Ministry spokesmen have confirmed the arrest of foreign nationals in
Kunduz and have speculated that cadres of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
are involved. If so, it goes to underscore that there is a grand
Taliban/al-Qaeda design towards the Central Asian region, especially towards
Uzbekistan, which has been cozying up to the US lately.
No one needs to explain to the Taliban the strategic importance of Kunduz,
which used to be center of their military command in northern Afghanistan
before their ouster in October 2001. The demographic structure of the region
provides an ideal platform for the Taliban's political work.
The scattered Pashtun, Uzbek and Tajik (and Hazara and Arab) communities and
their intra-ethnic and intra-tribal tensions are open to exploitation by the
Taliban to broaden their political base. Despite his great skills as a
politico-military strategist, Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud
incrementally began ceding Kunduz province to the Taliban by 1999. This helped
the Taliban on the one hand to consolidate their control over the whole of the
Shomali plain that stretches up from Kabul to the mouth of the Panjshir Valley,
and on the other hand to effectively intercept Northern Alliance supply lines
Call Dostum back!
As the northern provinces get engulfed in a full-blown insurgency, NATO faces
the grim reality that trying to contain an insurgency in a region like Kunduz
is going to be beyond its capacity. The US did a smart thing to engage Northern
Alliance "warlords" to do the job of evicting the Taliban from Kunduz in 2001,
rather than committing American troops.
Equally, the US (and NATO) may have no choice but to seek erstwhile mujahideen
commanders whom they decry presently as "warlords" - Mohammed Fahim, Rashid
Dostum, Mohmmed Mohaqiq and Ismail Khan, among others - if the Taliban's march
towards the northern and western provinces is to be effectively countered. This
is where President Hamid Karzai's political strategy to work with the
established local power groups may prove correct.
The complex ethnic makeup of the region around Kunduz and in the Amu Darya
region to the west is such that NATO will have no alternative but to quickly
"Afghanize" the war. There can be no effective anti-Taliban strategy in the Amu
Darya region without active local participation. The various ethnic groups live
as interspersed communities. Kunduz, in particular, is a tinder box.
For the foreseeable future, therefore, if and when a professional Afghan army
finally takes shape, any "Afghanization" in northern and western Afghanistan
will have to depend heavily on local forces that can offer resistance to the
Merkel seemed to be anticipating the looming crisis when she forcefully stated
on Sunday in Berlin that "the time has come" to Afghanize the war. She unveiled
a joint proposal in consultation with Britain and France calling for an
international conference on Afghanistan as soon as the next government is
formed in Kabul, to press the point with the newly elected Afghan leadership
and "to create some momentum".
Merkel will be jointly writing, along with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to United Nations secretary general Ban
Ki-moon to convene an international conference on Afghanistan at an early date.
Several templates have appeared simultaneously. Germany has lost its innocence
in the Afghan war. For a country carrying a huge historical burden, foreign
wars are never going to be easy. On the other hand, Germany has taken a
well-thought-out, long-term decision to assume an "internationalist" role in
conflict situations worldwide in line with its aspirations to play an
influential role in world politics; there is no going back merely because it is
accused of taking 100 or so innocent Afghan lives.
Germany is well aware that wars abroad are a serious business. In Afghanistan,
in particular, the war has far-reaching consequences, being vastly more than a
mere fight against international terrorism; it is also about NATO's future role
as a global political organization and the "unfinished business" of the Cold
War, as well as about defining the new world order.
Isolationism, therefore, is most certainly not being considered by the
leadership in Berlin. All the same, the Kunduz incident has forced the
compulsion, which has been felt for a while already in Berlin, to redefine the
German role in Afghanistan. It is against this backdrop that the weekend's
German-British-French initiative on Afghanistan was born.
The initiative may appear a European one, but it has evidently taken place in
consultation with Washington and therefore has the added advantage of evolving
a trans-Atlantic position on the coming new phase of Afghan strategy that will
provide an underpinning for the new strategy being contemplated by the Barack
Britain will feel gratified that it has played the cementing role in Europe for
the US - which in today's circumstances for Brown has the added virtue of
assuaging an increasingly strident domestic public opinion. In this perception,
his government is blundering in the Hindu Kush and precious young British lives
are needlessly being wasted in a war that no longer makes sense.
The big question is whether Merkel will insist on a European - and within that,
a German - lead role in any Afghan settlement as a quid pro quo by
Washington for Berlin's continued active participation in the war. Surely,
there is also the related Russian question. Russia, with which Germany is
fostering close ties, will be keenly watching. Moscow has made it clear that
it, too, is ready to play a role "politically" in Afghanistan as there is a
congruence of interests with NATO in this sphere. Moscow and Berlin consult
regularly on Afghanistan.
Moscow is counting on the changing of the guard at NATO headquarters in
Brussels last month to bring in new thinking about the alliance's ties with
Russia. Meanwhile, a body of opinion has also surfaced lately in influential
quarters in the US - Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, etc
- that there is nothing abominable - as the Cold Warriors might think - if NATO
cooperates with the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and
takes Russia's help in stabilizing Afghanistan. The ball, clearly, is in
The Kunduz incident has displayed a ghastly truth. There is Afghan blood
equally on the hands of all NATO countries. Conceivably, those who kill will
also insist on having the right to have a say in the downstream of the killing.
Friday's incident in Kunduz may well prove the tipping point in the war.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.