NATO's top civilian representative in Afghanistan, Cornelius Zimmermann, tells DW about his hopes that US troop reinforcements, coupled with stronger Afghan peace efforts, will turn the tide in this long war.
At the end of August, US President Donald Trump outlined his strategy for the ongoing war in Afghanistan that was short on detail, but recommits US troops to fighting terrorism in the region. Opinions on his policy have been divided, but speaking to DW, NATO's Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan Cornelius Zimmermann said he welcomes the change. He also discussed the challenges facing various parties in this 16-year-old conflict.
DW: What's been your response to the recent announcement from Washington on its future involvement in Afghanistan?
Cornelius Zimmermann: Like NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, I personally welcome the decision of the US government on its new South Asia strategy. I think it helps. A conditions-based approach is very much in sync with NATO's approach. We heard from a number of NATO member states and partners – more than a dozen – that they are planning to increase their participation in the Resolute Support Mission (RSM). I think that even a small increase will make a difference. I'm not responsible for our military planning, but still I'm working in very close cooperation with [RSM Commander] General [John] Nicholson.
We continue to see horrendous attacks being carried out in Afghanistan – which you yourself even remark upon occasionally on Twitter. And they're happening every single week, sometimes on consecutive days. It's discouraging to watch from afar and it must be terrifying on the ground.
The security situation is a challenge – that I admit. But the Afghan security forces are taking on this challenge and they're getting better day by day. We had a number of events in recent days in Kabul, for example the attack against the Iraqi embassy, and the Afghan security forces reacted very quickly, with advice from NATO special forces. So that definitely made a difference. Change will not come overnight in this country. And we have to admit that at times, yes, we see little progress but what is important is that we keep the momentum. The Afghan security forces are getting more professional, their operations are becoming more effective, and they are getting the backing of the general public. This announcement by President Trump was also very much welcomed in Afghan public opinion.
At the same time, civilian casualties are up, with numbers this year higher than last year. So if everybody is getting better at fighting and they're becoming more efficient, why are the civilian casualties still going up?
It's terrible to see how the Afghan civilian population is suffering. Let me state that the UN in one of its reports clearly underlined that anti-government forces remain responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties. Every one is one too many and in its training programs, RSM stresses the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.
Ultimately we need a peaceful solution to the Afghan question and military means alone will not be able to bring about a lasting peace to this country. That is why we had an Afghan-led peace conference in Kabul in early June which took place in very difficult circumstances, right after a high-profile attack on May 31. The president and members of the government but also the representatives of the neighboring countries showed a lot of courage in attending the conference and they sent out a very clear signal that we all want to fight terrorism and we have to build on that. We need a domestic peace process complementing the international efforts.
The Taliban holds roughly half the territory, but not half the population, as they don't hold any major population centers. Still, if they feel like they're making progress aren't they much less likely to participate in talks?
You're right that it's certainly difficult to bring about such a solution but that is not a reason not to try. And I think it's important to combine a "fight strategy" with a "talk strategy." I think part of the military approach is to show them that they cannot win this war, that it's to no avail to continue it. And I think the brighter elements among the Taliban might start to reflect: "Are we still doing the right thing? Is it giving meaning to our life?" And I think we should try – the Afghan government should try – to win them over. You do that not with humiliation, but an offer that respects the fighter. By this, I don't mean selling out on what we have achieved in this country, but an offer that leads to this sort of reflection process might be a good way out.
What kind of "offer"? Because you're talking about a very fine line here. Showing them on the battlefield they can't win would be something of a humiliation. So what kind of offer are you thinking of making and do you have some ideas that haven't been tried before?
That's what the secretary-general said when he encouraged the Afghan government to match their strategy of fighting with a strategy on peace. It should be a dual-track approach. I think what you need in Afghanistan is a public debate: Are we willing to forgive people who killed our neighbors, our family? Are we up for revenge or are we open to concessions, settlement for peace, for a better future for our children? I think we need to stimulate such a debate in this country. Of course, it takes two to tango. If the insurgents are not willing to reconcile then we have to wait. But as the government rightly claims to have the moral high ground, we encourage them to live up to it. And there I think is the future of this country.
More soldiers are probably going to mean more civilian casualties. If the fighting intensifies things may get worse before they get better. But you think these two things can truly move forward in parallel: talking about peace and fighting harder?
Yes, I would say so. On the one hand, you deliver a very clear message militarily to the insurgency. And at the same time, the alliance shows its commitment to Afghanistan, this conditions-based approach.
So even if they know it's going to get worse, the Afghan people are willing to withstand that?
There is hope and determination and that's what counts in this country. Looking at past experiences, I can assure you that in Afghanistan, a culture of responsibility is emerging. I have met many people in the last few weeks who are doing the right things under very difficult circumstances. They're reforming the public service against resistance. They are taking on the fight against corruption. There are courageous women promoting their role in society and fighting for a stronger say of women in building this country. I think that women will and do play a very important role as a force for change and for peace.
Does it matter then, that the US has not yet specified the number of troops to be committed in Afghanistan?
The message by President Trump was crystal clear. The United States is backing NATO's conditions-based approach. The understanding of the Afghan people is that NATO will stand by them as long as this is matched by their efforts. And I think that's a very encouraging signal and that's something you can build your future on.