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Opposing interests

October 6, 2011

On October 7, 2001 the first US bombs fell on Afghanistan. What was intended to be a quick campaign against radical Islamists has transformed into a decade-long war with unclear sides. What went wrong?

U.S. Marines with NATO forces on a patrol
The US has been fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan since 2001Image: AP

It was less than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States had called upon Afghanistan's Taliban regime to sever all ties to the al Qaeda network and hand over Osama bin Laden. But nothing happened - and Washington ultimately lost its patience. On October 7, 2001, President George W. Bush appeared before the press at the White House.

"On my orders the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," Bush told reporters, stressing that military forces only had their sights set on selected targets.

"The United States of America is a friend to the Afghan people and we are the friends of almost a billion worldwide who practice the Islamic faith," he said. However, he added, the US was "an enemy of those who aid terrorists and of the barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name."

There was no thought-out, political concept at the beginning of the invasion. The US, driven by revenge, and its allies believed in a quick triumph. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan had a mere 5,000 soldiers at the beginning, and was limited to Kabul. Beyond the capital, special task forces from "Operation Enduring Freedom" (OEF) hunted al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

A decade later, ISAF and OEF have been merged into one. In the meantime, over 130,000 soldiers from 48 nations are part of the international Afghanistan mission.

Afghan support

soldier in kabul with veiled women in background
The security situation in Kabul still needs to be closely patrolledImage: AP

The US-led invasion brought the war-torn country a new constitution. Millions of civil war refugees returned to their homes. Billions of dollars have been spent on improving roads, schools, universities and hospitals. The West finances the Afghanistan nation, its government and security forces. But Afghanistan is still far removed from security, peace, stability and reconciliation.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, recalls an early encounter he had at the time with a cleaner at the United Nations office in Kabul.

"He told me one day that he had actually studied meteorology at the University of Kabul, but he cleaned our offices," Ruttig said. "He said to me: 'The day that the Taliban are toppled I will take my razor and cut off my beard. I will place the hair of my beard in a small pouch and hang it up somewhere as a reminder to myself.' This man still has his beard today."

Ruttig is one of the few western experts who fluently speak both national languages, Dari and Pashto. Today, he views the intervention as an external analyst. In the first few years, however, he was an insider, working for the UN and European Union Afghanistan missions.

"It is explainable and understandable that the Americans intervened and the political reasons are well-known," Ruttig said. But he said what's even more important is that the Afghan population also supported the foreign intervention against the brutal regime of the radical Islamic Taliban.

"For the first time in Afghanistan's history, there was actually approval of a foreign military and civil intervention - and explicitly also for the military side," he said. "That is extremely remarkable, and it is also extremely remarkable how things have turned to this day."

Military means not the answer

Afghan northern alliance soldiers walk by a tank
The shadow of war has darkened Afghanistan for decadesImage: AP

The development in Afghanistan followed the logic of war: a growing numbers of insurgents, more and more soldiers and more insurgents. In large parts of Afghanistan, an asymmetrical war reigns with unclear fronts in which growing numbers of civilians are victims of violence and terror.

The Afghans already had over 20 years of war behind them when the West marched into the country - first against Soviet occupation then against each other. This civil war still has not been resolved. Gunter Mulack, Germany's former ambassador to Pakistan, said action in Afghanistan was coming from the wrong place.

"The central lesson is that we cannot achieve a victory anymore using military means," said Mulack, today executive director of the German Orient Foundation. "We have to place much more emphasis on development and education policies if we want to win hearts and minds."

According to Mulack, the Afghans should have been granted a much larger right of self-determination, "so that they themselves can say what they consider best for their future." Instead, a western choir made up of many voices decided what would happen in Afghanistan.

"It was like a sandbox, where many people were of the opinion that a completely modern nation be built there," he said.

Power-hungry positions

Although the European NATO partners in particular would like to highlight the civilian aspects of the intervention, Afghanistan has remained an out-and-out militarized country, said Ruttig.

"In the past five or six years, the US military has taken over the direction of all areas in Afghanistan," Ruttig said. "This means the purpose of these areas is solely combating the insurgency. This is wrong."

In addition to President Hamid Karzai and his clan, the powerful commanders of the Northern Alliance have particularly profited from the foreign commitment. When the western invasion began in October 2001, the Afghan Taliban movement practically conquered the fragile strategic alliance.

But today, the Northern Alliance feels it is the victor. Its leaders are allies of the West and use all means to secure their power. Many are involved in corruption and drug trafficking. Many fought against each other in an eagerness for power after the Soviet occupation pulled out in 1989 - committing inhuman crimes. Back then, after winning against the Communist regime, Afghanistan sank into a bestial civil war, which eventually brought the Taliban to power.

northern alliance soldiers
The US aligned with the Northern Alliance in 2001Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Afghan population has no faith in the political system," said South Asia expert Citha Maaß. The international community had set up an electoral law in cooperation with President Karzai, which gave political parties no role, she said.

"That's why the large majority of the Afghan population cannot articulate itself politically," said Maaß. "The result is that the local commanders, the previous warlords, can continue to exert their power. I would say the invasion failed."

Maaß is certain that today the western alliance is only concerned about returning the responsibility for the country as quickly as possible to the Afghans.

"This is a handover process in which the international community, in particular the Americans, has made itself a political hostage of President Karzai and the regional rulers he has appointed," she said. The international community could no longer exert pressure on the Afghan government, for example to take stronger action against corruption or drug trafficking.

"And it is this Afghan government with its corrupt structures who we want to hand over the security responsibilities and political power," Maaß said.

Talking to the Taliban?

Osama bin Laden is dead. Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have moved into the focus of the fight against terrorism. Afghanistan has lost its global significance. The United States and its allies are highly in debt and want to withdraw their troops from the area by 2014. In addition, national elections are coming up in the US, France and Germany - and the war in Afghanistan is similarly unpopular in the US and Europe.

"We learned in Afghanistan that we do not have the suitable means to ease major regional conflicts just like that," Ruttig said. "The UN didn't work, NATO hasn't worked there either, and we don't have any other organization that can," said Ruttig.

map of afghanistan
Afghanistan has strategic importance in the regionImage: Montage DW/AP

Today, the war-weary West considers negotiations with the Taliban the order of the hour. The radical Islamic movement has realigned itself in the border area to Pakistan and has gained strength. The Taliban led by Mullah Omar follows Afghan and not global goals, according to foreign analysis. But the war in Afghanistan has mobilized Muslims all around the world, said Peter Heine, a renowned German scholar of Islamic Studies.

"Being Islamic, the awareness of being Muslim and vis-à-vis the West, has certainly become stronger," Heine said. From a Muslim perspective, the conception has solidified "that the West is aggressive, that it will always push through its political, economic and strategic interests, no matter if they are right or wrong."

Afghanistan is and remains torn between internal power struggles and foreign interests. Few strategic and economic reasons indicate that the US will completely pull out militarily. Afghanistan could play a significant role as a transit country for central Asian oil and gas. In addition, all significant regional powers have long since brought themselves into position. Pakistan, India, Iran, China, Russia and Turkey are lurking for an opportunity in the heart of Central Asia.

Author: Sandra Petersmann / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge