Is NATO's present strategy working in Afghanistan? DW-TV discussed the current situation with German NATO General Egon Ramms, who expressed optimism for the country's future.
Ramms says that ISAF will be needed in Afghanistan at least until 2010
Egon Ramms is a four-star German general and commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum, which leads the International Security Assistance Force (ISAD) mission in Afghanistan.
DW-TV: General Ramms, you've just come from Afghanistan. How would you explain the overall military situation in the country to a lay person?
Egon Ramms: There's a great deal going on -- operations by the ISAF troops, but there are also activities being carried out by so-called opposition military forces. In the areas where we are active, we are operating with even more energy because we know that this is where the opposition military forces are and we've had plenty of clashes with them. To sum up, we have a military tussle. Although we control the greater part of the country, there are large areas, principally in the south and the east, that are marked by constant clashes with these opposition military forces.
General, you are avoiding the word 'war'. But isn't NATO and the West involved in a war in Afghanistan?
I'm not avoiding the term war. I believe we are in a war-like situation. I do not use the term war because it would make our legal situation more difficult or different from what it is today. When we talk about war, we'd have to take into account the rights of the combatants, we'd have to address the rights of prisoners of war and similar things. And this would make the situation of our forces currently deployed there much more difficult. Sometimes it would be helpful to have a situation where we could use other legal options. But that would mean enhancing the rights of the other side. But since the opposition is not waging war against us, not a direct war as we understand it, but mainly employs unusual tactics like booby trap bombs or sporadic assaults, I am not avoiding the word war, but I do say that we are in a situation that's similar to war.
As a military man, responsible for this deployment in Afghanistan, do you sense that you have sufficient political backing and that politicians are doing enough to provide support for the soldiers among the general population?
At the moment I cannot complain about a lack of political backing. When I consider the decision to extend our mandate last year, the parliamentary majority was 78 percent. That's a figure that is seldom achieved in the Bundestag on more mundane political issues. So the political support is there. But I am concerned when I hear about opinion polls where 62 percent of Germans are in favor of a Bundeswehr withdrawal from Afghanistan. As an interested citizen, I would like to know how this discrepancy between political opinion on the one side and public opinion on the other can be reconciled.
Are parliamentarians in touch with voters on Afghanistan?
Can NATO achieve any kind of tactical military victory in such an asymmetrical war waged against partisans and terrorists, suicide bombers and the like who can melt in and out of the country from neighboring Pakistan -- and these people do not particularly look like suicide bombers?
Perhaps it would be advisable to abandon the idea of a victory in such a struggle. We must ask ourselves: Why are we in Afghanistan? We're in Afghanistan to support the Afghan government. We're in Afghanistan to help the people of the country. I'd like to turn the idea around and get away from the idea of fighting opposition military forces. I like to express things like this: We're in Afghanistan to protect the Afghan people against these forces. Perhaps that would help Germans to better understand our mission and give us a better basis for discussion.
The German forces have long enjoyed a secure base in the north. But even in areas where German forces are based, the number of attacks are increasing -- and the number of victims. Is the north in danger of losing its stable reputation?
The Taliban know how to use the media to their advantage
No. What you say is correct. The number of attacks has risen significantly compared with last year. But when we speak of the number of attacks that occur in the north, we're talking about one percent of the figure in the whole country. That means that compared with the rest of Afghanistan, it's a negligible number. It's correct to say that the number of clashes in the south and east -- where the number of potential rebels or potential opposing forces is greater -- has increased the level of pressure. It's also correct to say that the Taliban assess international press reports with the greatest care, evaluate political events very carefully and then try to influence our political decisions with concentrated attacks. They are very skilled in handling communications and their information policy -- and that poses a problem, because we always want to tell the truth to our own people and the Afghan people -- and we often have to go on the back foot and are too slow to respond. As a journalist, you must be aware that breaking news travels around the world and nobody bothers to check if it's correct 24 or 48 hours later. The Taliban are far ahead of us in this. This is the method they use to influence the internal political decision-making in NATO member countries.
Do you sense that most Afghans are grateful that the West is interested in their plight?
We have tried to analyze this. We recently carried out an opinion poll, for example, in co-operation with ISAF headquarters and an Afghan civilian institute which I regard as being thoroughly representative, because the poll was conducted in all the country's provinces and the majority of Afghans took part. More than 30 percent of the population fully back the ISAF mission and a further 30 percent approve of ISAF because they believe that ISAF has increased their security. Only 19 percent are opposed to the mission. So the proportion of the Afghan population in favor of this mission lies between 60 and 80 percent. But we have to recognize that time is working against us. We have to ensure that our task of providing security in Afghanistan, supporting the Afghan government and Afghan security forces and the whole job of nation-building -- which will certain take longer than our military assignment -- makes progress and we must ensure that this progress is tangible for the population. We have to go further than just saying we now have six million children who are going to school. That's all well and good, and they are all steps along the way, but we need to get to the point where average families sense what is going on. Circumstances need to improve. Electricity and other things need to be provided. We have to make progress in these fields and we're under great time pressure.
General Ramms, could you dare predict when Afghans will be able to govern their country alone?
Will Afghan soldiers be ready by 2010?
That's a difficult question -- a very difficult question. When you ask me in my capacity as someon who is responsible for the business of security, then I believe I can predict a date of around 2010 to 2013. Not that far away. That has a lot to do with building up the Afghan security forces. But if we talk of nation building, if we talk about this country feeding itself and caring for its people with its own industries and where most people can enjoy a secure income either from exploiting minerals or other tasks -- then we're talking about a much longer period of time. At some stage our NATO forces and our ISAF soldiers will withdraw. A great many advisors from the West, from the foreign offices of governments, development ministries, and the ministry for agriculture will have to stay. They will remain and help the people of Afghanistan to develop their country and teach them how to do it themselves.
So you don't regard Afghanistan as a hopeless case? No. I do not regard Afghanistan as hopeless. I base this belief on the fact that the Afghan people are tired of 30 years of continuous military conflict and that they themselves are interested in leading normal lives. We must maintain our interest in helping Afghanistan transform itself back to normality -- to a country where people can enjoy life to the full and a country that can support itself. We can help ensure this transformation and ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven or a place of refuge for terrorists.