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The Afghan quagmire

Ratbil Shamel / sbAugust 31, 2012

Experts agree that NATO has to learn and understand the history of the Afghanistan conflict to find a solution to the country's problems. If not, they will only go from being the hunters to the hunted.

A NATO soldier in Afghanistan
Image: Getty Images

Who are our friends and who are our enemies? These questions seem to be of vital importance at the moment in NATO's Afghanistan strategy.

This year so far, there have been attacks nearly every week on international troops by Afghan security forces. By the end of August, 45 soldiers had died in such attacks. US forces have now responded by ordering an investigation into links in Afghan security to the Taliban. In the meantime, the US has suspended Afghan security training programs.

The radical Islamist Taliban and their helpers have been planning for around three years to infiltrate the Afghan army and police – apparently with success, South Asia expert Konrad Schetter told DW.

"Their main strategy is to destroy communication and interaction between the international forces - the representatives of NATO - and the Afghans, and thus destroy the trust between Afghan and international security forces."

Damage control

Damaged cooperation between Afghan security forces and their international allies would make the formation of a stable security apparatus impossible in the country. The Afghan army and police are still in the process of reconstruction. From 2014 onward, after international troops have left Afghanistan, they are supposed to entirely take over responsibility for the country's security.

But before it can do that, Afghan security forces have to receive intensive training from their NATO partners. Joint operations against insurgents can be seen as one part of the training. But this so-called "partnering strategy" don't seem to be possible, according to Schetter.

"The training of Afghan soldiers is now being conducted with wooden rifles. They are trying to demilitarize Afghan soldiers on all levels. But training on wooden rifles can only get you so far - it is more difficult to re-enact serious situations than with real weapons and ammunition."

NATO countries are faced with a dilemma: "they know that they have to train and build up Afghan security forces but up to now, they have not had a strategy for minimizing the influence of insurgents on them," Schetter explained.

'Ungrateful partners'

Afghanistan's National Army soldiers
Experts say the Taliban have successfully infiltrated the Afghan armyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In addition, the Afghan government did not seem to have understanding for current problems the international forces are facing in Afghanistan, Afghan military expert Assadullah Walwalgi told DW.

"President Hamid Karsai and the Afghan government are not helping their partners one bit with their anti-American strategy. The President himself has been blaming the country's problems on the US and international security forces for years. You don't even need the Taliban to create anti-Western sentiment among the Afghan security forces and population."

President Hamid Karzai likes to refer to the radical Islamist Taliban as his "brothers." He feels deserted and humiliated by the Obama administration. Afghanistan's friends in Washington were, to put it mildly, very reserved, after Karzai was reelected in 2009. The difference of opinion, according to Walwalgi, is the best ammunition for the insurgents.

"The insurgents and their helpers know that the citizens of the NATO states are definitely not ready to sacrifice their soldiers and an endless amount of money for a state that does not show any gratitude."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center, listens to former Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak in Kabul
Afghan President Karzai often blames the West for Afghanistan's problemsImage: AP

Learning from mistakes

Walwalgi also criticized the governments of NATO countries. He accused them of acting like armatures even after over 10 years of war. He said they had to understand that the conflict was taking place on three levels: the national, regional and international levels. And only a solution that represented all three could bring lasting peace to Afghanistan.

He also said that NATO had only itself to blame if it did not want to learn from the history of the country and it should not be surprised if it failed.

Schetter said ignorance would have drastic consequences. "There are a number of instances in which the history of Afghanistan is ignored. Instead examples are taken from the war in Kosovo. That shows how little NATO and the entire international intervention does not really understand Afghanistan."