Cornelius Zimmermann, Germany's former ambassador to the OSCE, took up his post as NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan in March. The Taliban has since kicked off spring fighting season.
Cornelius Zimmermann, Germany's former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, took up his post as NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan in March. Zimmermann had spent the years 2013-2015 in Mazar-i-Sharif, where Germany leads the Regional Command North, serving as his country's senior civilian representative.
DW: Ambassador Zimmermann, you've spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, and you are going back in a new role. What are the challenges of your job? And why did you decide to take it on?
Cornelius Zimmermann: I haven't had a more rewarding foreign posting than Mazar, and I had the opportunity at that time to travel the north of Afghanistan extensively. So in five days I traveled from Kunduz to Faisalbad, and what I saw is far more than you hear in our media. Of course the stories about violence and terror in Afghanistan, they're true but there's a different world out there. There's a lot of ordinary life, ordinary people who are interested in ensuring a better future for their own children, who are very resilient and who are keeping on the fight for a better Afghanistan with peaceful means against all challenges. And it is these Afghan people - so resilient, so courageous and full of motivation - who inspired me. And that is the reason which brought me back to that country.
I think the international community has taken on a job in Afghanistan, and it's about securing our gains that we should continue our work in Afghanistan. But it's also our very own interest. I mean, let's remember what happened on 9/11. We don't want to see such terrible things occur ever again. And that is why we, the West, we have a strong interest in seeing to it that Afghanistan becomes this peaceful and stable country and that it cannot, will never be again, a safe haven for terrorists.
The Taliban have just announced that they have started their spring fighting season. What are your expectations for this season? Last year saw the highest number of civilian casualties since the United Nations started keeping track. That's your side of the job now. And the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces lost 807 soldiers in the first six weeks of this year - extremely high numbers. So what are your expectations now that we've got the fighting season upon us?
I don't want to embellish the situation. In the last couple of days, I had the sad duty to write to President (Ashraf) Ghani to present my condolences after what happened in Mazar: the attack against Camp Shaheen, which cost the lives of more than 100 Afghan soldiers. It shows that this is a long fight and that we have to continue to support our Afghan friends and partners. And in my message I also assured President Ghani of our continued assistance. [NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg] later on phoned President Ghani and did the very same.
It's a long-term investment. There won't be easy solutions, but I can tell you we are also seeing progress. Look back at last year, for example. The Taliban tried at least eight times to seize one of the provincial capitals. They were frustrated each and every time because the Afghan national security and defense forces fought courageously and they will continue to do so. They know that this is a national case. The Afghan security forces have taken on that task only two years ago, and I think we're doing quite well, and I know that the assistance we are giving to them makes a difference. We are providing sustained financial support to their forces and by training measures we help them to take on the challenges of the security situation and the fight against terror every day, and they are making progress in that respect.
When I've been there, Afghans tell us that still, especially in the outer provinces, families generally send one son to the Afghan defense forces and one son to the Taliban because they are not sure who's going to win and they've got to hedge their bets: They've got to have one son left. Is that still the case?
I don't think this is the case. I think this government is showing performance, and that is what we need in order to win the population over. It's the provision of a better quality of services. It's a better life. It's all about a better life for Afghans, which clearly shows that this government is on its way to ensure a better future for all Afghans. And if I may come back to Mazar, consequences were drawn. A wide part of the military leadership resigned, and we even have changes at the level of commanders. They're taking actions, and they are addressing shortcomings and replacing leaders who haven't performed well, who promised to do better. And we even had changes at the top of the Ministry of Defense. I think this augurs well.
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One factor that we didn't have in all the previous years is an "Islamic State" (IS or ISIS) presence. The spokesperson for the US forces in Afghanistan says he believes NATO and the Afghan forces together can wipe out IS in Afghanistan this year. Do you feel that truly within the next year or so Afghanistan can prove itself inhospitable to IS or other terrorist groups of its type?
Your question relates very much to the military domain, so I'm maybe not the best person to talk about that, but what I can confirm is that progress is being made in the fight against ISIS. NATO contributes to this fight by making the Afghan security forces better day by day in securing stability in their own country and in fighting terrorism. And, as you will certainly know, the US has a bilateral program which of course does not fall under the purview of NATO.
The United States and NATO have spoken in the past about concerns that Russia is involved in the conflict. Will that be something that you bring up with your Russian intermediaries, that you're concerned about, including the possibility that the country has aided IS and other insurgents?
I would like to put that into a wider framework. I think what has become more and more obvious is that the Afghan solution has to be supported and a solution to the Afghan problem, to the Afghan question, has to be supported by all its neighbors. We need a constructive response by the whole region. And I think they have to understand, and that's what we are communicating [to neighboring countries] stable Afghanistan is in the interest of the wider region as it would positively affect the stability of a wider region and therefore in the interest of each and every single player in the region.
You're in Brussels to talk with allies, to review the programs, the international support. What do you need from the United States in the very near future in terms of a commitment so that other countries can decide how they're going to invest their resources in Afghanistan? It's always sort of "we've got to wait until we see what the US does," including on the civilian side. So are we waiting for a decision by the Trump administration on what they're going to commit? And do you think that the allies still have the appetite to rally around Afghanistan? Germany has been a good example up in the north, putting a consulate there and saying "we're here for the long run - we're here for the Afghans." What about the rest of the allies, and not just the allies but the partners, starting with the United States?
Starting with the US, in the month I've been in Afghanistan I had a visit by the national security adviser, by the secretary of defense. I think these are already very clear expressions of the interest the new administration is taking in the situation in Afghanistan. You have certainly heard that there's talk about an [increase in] forces. I think these are questions to be discussed amongst the leadership.
But, looking back [NATO's 2016] Warsaw summit, we had a clear message of a long and sustained commitment and support to the Afghan national security and defense forces - not only the financial support, but also helping the Afghan friends and partners and having better trained and more capable defense forces. So there is a clear commitment. We will see how the discussions unfold.
But let us not forget that Afghanistan is a fact on the map like it or not. And this is the single biggest operation NATO has ever conducted. We started with a very good reason. I would just like to come back to what I said before: 9/11 - we don't want any country in the world to provide a safe haven to terrorism anymore, and that's part of our mission. I think we should also build on what we have achieved.
And, as you are from the media, you're certainly aware that the media in Afghanistan is flourishing, just to give you one example. And I think this augurs for the better, that Afghans are having a critical view - a constructively critical view of their own country - and that there is an ambition to bring change about. And, as long as we see this spirit of ownership, we have very good reason to stay committed.