NATO is planning to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 - a date that will be extremely difficult to meet, as General Egon Ramms explained to DW.
General Egon Ramms was in charge of international operations in Afghanistan from 2007-2010 and commander of NATO's Joint Force Command in Brunssum, Netherlands until his retirement in September, 2010.
DW: Mr. Ramms, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The plans for the withdrawal are expected to be decided this spring. How does one go about organizing such a withdrawal?
Egon Ramms: When it comes to the withdrawal, it is important to first take stock. Find out, what do we have in Afghanistan. A lot of people wouldn't think of that. But at the moment, we are talking about 120,000 soldiers, 70,000 vehicles and over 100,000 containers. The sheer amount of equipment and soldiers there is a problem. Especially considering Pakistan and the convoy routes. They have been completely blocking the routes from last November. But not all of the equipment will be able to be transported by air. So precise planning and coordination is of vital importance. All that has to be coordinated with the provinces that have already been handed over to the Afghans. The withdrawal will be an operation in itself that requires military strategic planning. And it will have to be carried out in cooperation with all the involved countries.
General Egon Ramms
That means it will be a great logistical challenge, and one that is expected to cost a few billion euros. But concerning security, it will also be a challenge. How will the security of the exiting troops be guaranteed? After the US has taken out its soldiers, who will be there to ensure their security?
The concept is that these duties will be handed over to Afghan security after the handover of the provinces. 350,000 Afghan security personnel have been trained up to now. But whether they have all received the same level of training is questionable. There is a difference in quality when it comes to training. But it the end, the Afghans themselves will have to take full control of and responsibility for the tasks that are currently being carried out by ISAF, the allies, 49 countries.
Do you think the Afghans can manage this on their own, especially seeing how attacks continue to be carried out from within the Afghan security forces?
I recommend not making these kinds of attacks out to be more than they are. The number of such attacks is extremely low compared to the number of police and soldiers. And you have to expect other incidences, for example the burning of copies of the Koran and the killing spree carried out by an American soldier and the reactions the two incidents caused. Such cases hurt the trust between our soldiers and the Afghan forces. And that doesn't make things any easier. That means the soldiers will have to watch out for themselves during the withdrawal. But for the outside world - for the Taliban and the other insurgents - it has to appear as though the Afghan forces are providing the security.
Do you find all the talk about the withdrawal counter-productive? If I were the Taliban, wouldn't I simply wait until the international security forces are gone and then launch an attack?
That's how I see it. I have publicly stated time and again that these discussions about the withdrawal send a false message. It sends a false message to the soldiers, to our own populations, to the Afghan people and also to the Taliban. The situation is difficult because politically, it really has been turned into a domestic issue. Look at speeches by US President Obama and discussions that went on here in Germany in 2010, when there was talk of setting a mandate for a fixed withdrawal date. These are surely important points for domestic politics, but domestic politics aren't helping Afghanistan.
This being election year, the US defense minister mentioned 2013 as a date for the withdrawal. And the Afghan president is also saying the country would be ready for a complete security handover next year. Is this counter-productive in any way?
I was concerned by the discussion because I thought that 2014 was optimistic enough. I think it sends the wrong message. I don't think it will be possible to complete the withdrawal in 2013. There are now NATO and Bundeswehr experts saying that in order to withdraw all of the ISAF troops by the end of 2014, we should have started in March, 2012. That means we would have had to start the withdrawal last month. But we didn't. So I have my doubts about 2014.
If you go in, you've got to have an exit plan. There's an old German army saying to that effect. Is there a joint plan?
Each country has had its own plans for a long time. They were always more or less meant to be emergency withdrawal plans that would have been implemented had there been certain developments in Afghanistan or had things gone worse. But there was never one master plan. That is the big challenge. Considering the 2014 target, we desperately need a NATO plan.
Interview: Bernd Riegert / sb
Editor: Arun Chowdhury