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Expert pleads for delinking of civilian, military operations in Afghanistan

Europeans should argue for decoupling civilian from military operations in Afghanistan at the upcoming NATO summit, the head of the EU Institute of Security Studies tells Deutsche Welle.

ISAF patch on German soldier in Afghanistan

The international Afghanistan mission should focus less on the military

Deutsche Welle interviewed Alvaro de Vasconcelos, the director of the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, at the recent EUISS Washington Forum. Among other things, Vasconcelos addressed the outlook for European engagement in Afghanistan.

Deutsche Welle: The war in Afghanistan is now in its ninth year and the original goal of establishing a democracy there is all but gone. Europeans have been deeply skeptical of the Afghan mission for a long time. Could Europe do more in Afghanistan?

Alvaro de Vasconcelos: We can do more. But to do more we should do it in a civilian way. We are going to have the NATO summit in a few days and the temptation will be to say the civilian training in Afghanistan must be done by NATO itself because the Europeans are not doing as much as necessary and the Americans will essentially work through NATO.

I think this is as mistake. Because this will make civilians become part of a military operation. We need to delink the civilian from the military. Of course the military is needed to guarantee the protection of the civilian training. But we need to train the police in a different way then we train the military.

The police are trained to protect people, so we need to move toward this core aspect - human security and strategy where the main objective is to protect the civilians in Afghanistan and not to kill the enemy. Because as President Obama from day one said we should not be in Afghanistan to kill civilians, but to protect them.

Do you think Europeans would support sending more police trainers to Afghanistan?

I think if there is a clear shift in the strategy in Afghanistan in that we say we are not there to win a war, we are there to build an Afghan state, an Afghan army, an Afghan police force, this would be welcome, because the people in Europe want their soldiers home.

Most public opinion polls in Europe show that the majority of people want their soldiers back as soon as possible. So if you devise a strategy that will bring your troops home - which is what President Obama has announced - and you show that this is a crisis management and state-building operation that involves the United Nations to a larger degree, that will get much more support in Europe.

There has been a lot of debate in the past years whether or not the West should talk to the Taliban. What is your opinion?

My sense is that there is more or less a consensus now in Europe, and I think also in the United States, that there is a need for a political process.

You can speak about talking to Taliban in two ways: One is to say we are talking with the good Taliban. We would then be dividing the Taliban leadership by talking to local leaders and this would be a kind of counterinsurgency strategy. This was used in Iraq. But the essential problem is that the Taliban leadership will still be there and will still have a lot of support in some areas of the country and it will still be able to make war and create enormous difficulties to the international coalition.

The other is to start communication at the highest level of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But if you (do that,) the biggest difficulty is to decide what we want from them. Are we prepared to have the Taliban in power again in Kabul? What would be the impact of that in international public opinion - but especially in Europe and the United States?

The role of President Karzai is a very contentious issue, which came up again recently after he confirmed reports that he was regularly accepting large sums of cash from Iran. Is Karzai for Europe and the US still the best option to lead Afghanistan?

So far he is the only option. No one has found a better option for Afghanistan up to now. We know that the elections were not very transparent and that it is important now to establish legitimacy and credibility. But Karzai is in power now, the election results were accepted after lots of doubts, and the Europeans and the Americans as well as the international community are now working with him. And he is a very skillfull politician with many connections in Afghanistan and he knows the country well, so he can start the process of talking with the Taliban. So he certainly is and will be playing an important political role.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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