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The Network debates Afghanistan

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The Network debates Afghanistan

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A symbol of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban rebirth in flames and under fire. Insurgents attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in the capital Kabul during a provincial governors’ conference there at the end of June. It took Afghan security forces – backed by NATO air support – more than four hours to flush them out in a bloody gun battle.

It is the latest evidence Afghan forces are far from ready to defend their country.

Still, US President Barack Obama – facing eroding domestic support for the war and an election next year – has decided to proceed with a troop drawdown.

It reverses a surge that improved security in some areas, though at heavy cost. Other countries are also pulling troops out even though the Taliban are far from defeated.

With Osama bin Laden dead, many see little strategic value in Afghanistan anymore.

With thousands of lives and hundreds of billions already spent over a decade, the international community is fast losing patience with an Afghan government that still can not defend itself.

Wired into this edition of The Network, here at the European Parliament in Brussels, are Homayoun Tandar, Afghan Ambassador to Belgium and chief of the Afghan mission to the EU.

From NATO headquarters in Brussels, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, and also from the European Parliament, German MEP Franziska Katharina Brantner, she is a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance and is on the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Let me begin with a question to all of you, starting with the ambassador, some say it is a mistake to draw down forces now, what do you think?

Ambassador Homayoun Tandar:

It’s not a question of withdrawing the troops now. There’s a plan that’s been agreed with NATO and the Afghan authorities. The end of the transition will happen in 2014, so there’s no panic and no urgency.

Chris Burns:

Admiral how do you answer that, because a lot of people are saying this is really a bad time to do this.

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola:

No, on the contrary, this demonstrates that the process is improving. The transition is a responsible process by which ISAF forces will hand over progressive responsibility to Afghan security forces. And I think is a demonstration that we are on the right track.

Burns:

Madame Brantner, I think you would like to see them pull out faster than they are planned to be, is that right?

Franziska Katharina Brantner MEP:

There is an agreed plan, which has been agreed by all sides and I think that what is important is to stick to the plan. We also have to be honest, that actually the pull out by Obama is at two levels from where he started as President, and it was the same level.

Burns:

OK, the British and the Russians both failed, in the so-called “Great Game” of trying to pacify Afghanistan. Mikhail Gorbachev himself told me, it’s better to pull everybody out. What would happen if there is a full pull out now? Ambassador.

Ambassador Homayoun Tandar:

It’s not happening now. Why do you want me to create a hypothesis? In any case, there’s no comparison between the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops which was a military occupation, and the presence of coalition forces and NATO authorised by the Security Council and approved by the Afghan government and people.

Burns:

Admiral, don’t you think though that this pull out is a bit too quick, and if there is a pull out things are really going to unravel, fall apart?

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola:

First of all, not a pull out, but a responsible draw down of forces, with a handing over to the Afghan security forces, we are building up the Afghan security forces, so you cannot make a comparison with the previous situation, because we are not just pulling out. We are responsibly transferring security to the Afghan security forces, that we are building up. This is a tremendous difference from the past.

Burns:

To you Madame Brantner. The UN Envoy to Afghanistan Stefan di Mistura says the transition to Afghan rule is “on track”. Do you agree with him, but keep in mind too the UN said that civilian deaths are up more than 15 percent this year, nearly 1,500 people in the first half of the year.

Franziska Katharina Brantner MEP:

I think in terms of the building up of the police forces and the security sector in general, but also of the justice sector, there is still much work to do, and I think we should not be misled into believing that the work is done after one decade. It takes decades, so I think we have to make clear that building up and training, for example, the police forces will not stop and it has to continue, because I don’t believe the job is done in that area at all.

Burns:

OK, Ambassador is it realistic to believe that Afghanistan can really have a true democracy, isn’t a balance of power of war lords – including the Taliban – more realistic?

Ambassador Homayoun Tandar:

If you think of democracy as a process that one can apply from one day to the next, I believe that’s the wrong path. It’s the desire of the population, I believe in all countries the world over, the youth of the world are showing that if you follow democracy they will get a lawful government, popular participation, and an improvement in the lives of the people.

Burns:

Admiral, it is said that the Americans have the watches and the Taliban have the time. Do you think it is just a waiting game for the Taliban to take over.

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola:

I don’t think so at all, and as a matter of fact what you are seeing is the last blast, the [final] attempt of the Taliban because they realise that they do not have the time, it’s them that has the watch, that is why they are acting as they are. So I would say the right reading is the other way around. They don’t have the time, they are losing the time, they just have a malfunctioning watch.

Burns:

Madam Brantner, what kind of deal can you see with the Taliban to stop the fighting. Keep in mind President Karzai’s brother being assassinated in Southern Afghanistan where he was seen as a power broker. That’s going to make things much more difficult.

Franziska Katharina Brantner MEP:

I think it is difficult to say the Taliban. Obviously in Afghanistan it has a much wider diversity and what everybody is hoping for is that you will try to negotiate with some and not with others and bring some on board and others probably not. And that is a process that is going on and yes, you have always defeats. And that makes it harder, but that shouldn’t stop us.

Burns:

Ambassador, how do you respond to that, what sort of political arrangement do you see?

Ambassador Homayoun Tandar:

Let’s not forget the three pillars which exist, and the reintegration which is really going well, the military pressure which is there, and the political reconciliation that we’ve begun, and the loss of Ahmed Wali Karzai is deeply felt in that area because he had a network, he had contacts, but we’re not going to abandon the efforts we’ve already committed to. We’ll get there.

Burns:

Admiral, is demilitarising the international force and focusing more on development really realistic? That seems to be the strategy. But some say you can’t rebuild Afghanistan without more security.

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola:

But we are building this security, I want to repeat it. We are building the Afghan security forces. It is proper for the Afghan security forces to take care of their security. We are investing massively in terms of money, resources, time. We are building security. You have to realise, we are realising an Afghan surge. This needs to be understood.

Burns:

Admiral, let me ask you also, how do you avoid so many civilian deaths from the NATO strikes?

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola:

We are being very straight and careful in what we do. We are always working with our Afghan friends, together, hand-in-hand. They are always in the lead, even in the very much criticised operation to hunt down certain people. So that’s what we do. Carefulness, strictly obeying the rules of engagement, that’s what we do.

Burns:

Madame Brantner, what about the argument that if Europe and NATO do not make an effort to stabilise Afghanistan, you’re going to have a lot more refugees, as you have done in the past, flooding into Europe. Isn’t that a good argument to become more involved in Afghanistan?

Franziska Katharina Brantner MEP:

For me the real objective is to help the Afghan people. I think is a project for decades as I said earlier on. You can’t build this up in a few years. And I think on the security sector and the building up of police forces, what NATO and the US stand for is way too short, it’s a few weeks’ training. And I think we must invest much more heavily if we really want to build up, for example, a functioning and democratic police.

Burns:

Ambassador, why can’t we get more Muslim countries, more Muslim troops, to be part of the security force there in Afghanistan?

Ambassador Homayoun Tandar:

Listen, participation is voluntary, there are already a certain number of Muslim countries involved in efforts to form the Afghan army and the existence or approval of security, if I can say that, there are five or six Muslim countries, including Turkey now, that we can’t force to take part. But anyway, it’s not a religious issue, it’s a geo-strategic issue.