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Afghanistan - There are no safe zones

November 11, 2016

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack on the German consulate in Masar-i-Sharif. Afghanistan will not be safe until there is a political solution, says Afghanistan expert Thomas Ruttig.

Afghanistan Aufräumarbeiten nach Taliban-Angriff auf deutsches Konsulat
Afghan men clean up the debris near the site of a powerful truck bomb that targeted the German consulateImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Usyan

DW: Why was the German consulate the target of attack?

Ruttig: One could say, in a rather cynical sense, that Germany became a target relatively late in the game. Especially in light of the reason the Taliban gave after the attack, namely that the German army had previously played a role in the military operations of ISAF and now in Resolute Support. But the Taliban also thought, much like the majority of Afghans, that the Germans were something special, and that has to do with the fact that before the wars, Germany tended to have positive, constructive and peaceful relations with Afghanistan. That was the case for a long time. But over the last few years the war has escalated.

The Taliban said the attack was revenge for US airstrikes in Kunduz that killed a number of civilians. Does that mean the Germans are being punished because they are part of the international troop contingent?

Afghanistan Explosion in der Nähe des deutschen Konsulatsbüros in Mazar-i-Sharif
Afghan security forces investigate at the site of explosion near the German consulate office in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan November 11, 2016Image: Reuters/A. Usyan

Yes, this attack was based on that fact. But we should also remember that in 2009 German commanders ordered a major attack on two hijacked tank trucks. There were no retaliations after the incident. Hence, I would say the Taliban was quite late in declaring the Germans a target.

Where does the Taliban hold sway, where is the Afghan government in control and what changes have there been of late?

Over the last several years control has increasingly shifted towards the Taliban. The war in Afghanistan is an asymmetrical conflict largely being waged by the Taliban and other rebel groups using guerrilla tactics. Only recently have we seen the development of clear frontlines, but not everywhere in the country, which makes it difficult to say just who controls how much of Afghanistan. In many regions there are massive gray areas that no one controls. Everything is in flux.

NATO's aim is for Afghan security forces to stabilize the country. Do American airstrikes suggest that NATO troops will be, perhaps even must be, more forcefully engaged?

Both assessments are correct. They must intervene more forcefully, and they are doing so. The Americans, who play the most important role in Afghanistan, attempted to wind down involvement under President Obama. Yet that approach has changed since the beginning of the year. Progress made by Afghan forces has simply not been sufficient. It is not enough to say that so and so many soldiers and police officers have been trained, there is also the issue of the quality of those soldiers and police. There are two main problems with the Afghans: The first is the coordination of the many armed forces on the government side - army, police and intelligence services all have fighting units - these units often do as they please. Secondly, there is also the question of morale: Do soldiers and police feel as if this government is really their government? The government is paralyzing itself with its own political appointments and has failed to get the country turned around socially, economically and in terms of the security situation. That hurts the morale of soldiers and police.

If international troops were to pull out of Afghanistan today, would the Afghan government be able to hold onto power?

Maybe. But an even larger problem would be that if the soldiers left, so would financing. For the lion's share of pay for soldiers, police, teachers and civil servants is currently being paid out with foreign money. If that dried up, the government would likely collapse.

Karte Afghanistan Mazar-i-Sharif Englisch
Mazar-i Sharif on a map of AfghanistanImage: DW

What does the current security situation mean as relates to refugees? Is Afghanistan a safe country of origin?

The situation is deteriorating. There really aren't any areas that are truly safe. They may be safe for a while, but not for long. Further, security also implies that people are able to earn a living for themselves. In Europe, we dismiss such people as economic refugees. But we have to recognize that the poor socioeconomic situation is the result of 40 years of war in Afghanistan. It is hard to separate those two things. I don't think Afghanistan will be safe until we can move toward a political solution, and we are just at the very beginning of that path.

Thomas Ruttig is co-director of the research institute Afghanistan Analysts Network.

This interview was conducted by Christoph Hasselbach.