Friday, December 19, 2014

NATO Meeting to Highlight Strains on Afghanistan

STRASBOURG, France – NATO leaders gathered here Friday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of an alliance that deterred the Soviet Union, opened the door to emerging democracies, battled ethnic cleansing and now welcomes the return of France as a full member. But they also must face the harsh reality that NATO’s first military mission outside Europe is failing in a way that risks fracturing the alliance.

As President Obama takes ownership of the fight against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, aides say he is determined to turn around the war in Afghanistan with a regional approach, recognizing that the stability of neighboring Pakistan, where Al Qaeda hides, is increasingly at risk. Mr. Obama, who left London for Strasbourg Friday after attending the Group of 20 summit meeting, is trying to fashion an efficient counterinsurgency strategy, as in Iraq, with a comprehensive surge of military and civilian reinforcements.

But his increasing American troops in Afghanistan to some 68,000 by the end of the year, from 38,000 today, is also likely to significantly Americanize an operation that in recent years had been divided equally between American troops and allied forces. By year’s end, American troops will outnumber allied forces by at least two to one.

His NATO allies are giving the president considerable vocal support for the newly integrated strategy. But they are giving him very few new troops on the ground, underlining the fundamental strains in the alliance.

The allies will offer more funds but no more than several thousand new personnel members, according to alliance military planners. Many of those will not be soldiers, but police trainers to meet a central pillar of the president’s new Afghan strategy, which focuses on an expansion of Afghan security forces. But even for the small numbers of European combat reinforcements, check the fine print: Nearly all will be sent to provide security for Afghanistan’s elections this summer, and will not be permanently deployed.

The war in Afghanistan has not drawn the enormous public protests in Europe that preceded the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. However, there were clashes in Strasbourg on Thursday between police firing tear gas and nearly 1,000 protesters who tried to enter the city center. The protesters, some of them masked, set garbage cans on fire and smashed a dozen bus stop shelters. On Friday, the French police said that of 300 protesters who had been detained, 107 remained in custody, The Associated Press reported.

The anti-NATO protesters marched from a so-called “peace camp” set up on the outskirts of Strasbourg, where security is already tight. As many as 30,000 police officers are on duty in the city and just over the border in Kehl and Baden-Baden, Germany, where some events will take place.

The war in Afghanistan was the first time that NATO invoked its Article 5, which requires collective defense of a member under attack. It was an important signal of support for the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, and maintaining the alliance was always considered more important than the inefficiencies of the effort, where each national parliament could decide what its troops could do. But Mr. Obama’s approach reflects a decision that to salvage the war now requires a dominant American role.

“As a candidate, Obama had expectations that Europe would make a serious increase in troop levels after he became president,” said Charles A. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But there is a realization now that Europe’s main contribution will be police trainers, economic assistance and development assistance.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and his British counterpart, John Hutton, have publicly warned that the performance of some European troops demonstrates that NATO risks slipping toward a two-tiered alliance. In that event, it would be divided between those that can and will fight, like Britain, Canada, France and Poland, and those that cannot or will not because of public opinion at home.

In many cases, European capitals have placed severe restrictions on their forces assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or I.S.A.F. That has been such a hindrance to the war effort, in the view of some American commanders, that they ruefully say the alliance mission’s initials now stand for “I Saw America Fight.”

To be sure, a number of NATO and other partner nations have sent troops to Afghanistan who have fought and died in percentages larger than those of the American military. Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch and French conventional forces have shed much blood, and commando units from some of the smaller, newer NATO allies in the Baltics have punched far above their weight, according to American Special Operations commanders.

But even in allied countries whose soldiers have fought so well, public opinion does not support an increase of troops sent to what seems to be an endless war far away in a country that has always ejected foreign occupiers.

Under Mr. Obama’s plan, the United States is scheduled next year to take over from the Europeans the command in southern Afghanistan, which has seen the worst resurgence of violence. The United States will retain the command in fiercely contested eastern Afghanistan, across from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, where Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said that Osama bin Laden and important Qaeda leaders reside.

That means that by next year, the allies will be in charge only in the relatively combat-free northern and western regions.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Holbrooke understood early on that European members of NATO would not provide many troops beyond the approximately 30,000 already there, led by Britain, Germany and France. Instead, the Europeans will focus on the training of the police, of the army and of the civilian administration. The new goal, according to American military planners and NATO-nation diplomats, is to produce an Afghan Army of some 220,000 troops and an enlarged police force of 180,000.

What Afghanistan needs, a senior German official said, is not more foreign soldiers but more Afghan troops and police officers. Germany is sending in new police mentoring teams, and several hundred more police officers and gendarmes will come from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania and Spain, according to the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. France is trying to coordinate a second pillar of the European police force in Afghanistan to do training in the countryside for periods of up to 11 months. That project, which European officials say is more efficient than trying to send local police officers to Kabul, can have a European label.

Europeans will also concentrate on the “civilian surge” to help create functioning Afghan political, judicial and security structures in the countryside.

Daniel P. Fata, the Pentagon’s senior official for European and NATO issues during the Bush administration, said that Mr. Obama must not lower the NATO flag in Afghanistan, as that might provide allies an excuse to go home. “No European country wants to be the first to leave Afghanistan,” said Mr. Fata, a vice president with the Cohen Group, a global business consulting practice. “But many would be happy to be the second, third or fourth.”

Europeans praise the new policy, which “includes for the first time the words ‘exit strategy,’ ” another senior German official said. “But if the real problem is in western Pakistan, for that no one – not Europe and not the U.S. – has any easy answer.”

The New York Times
By THOM SHANKER and STEVEN ERLANGER
Steven Erlanger reported from Strasbourg, France, and Thom Shanker from Washington.

Splintered Taliban Thwarts Afghan Peace

KABUL – When voter registration stations opened in southern Afghanistan several months ago, officials feared they would be attacked by Taliban fighters who control much of the region. Instead, the process went smoothly and not a shot was fired. There were even reports of local Taliban members encouraging people to register and support them at the polls in August.

But when a Taliban commander in Wardak province accepted an offer of reconciliation last month from the government, which is trying to persuade “moderate Taliban” fighters to lay down their weapons and participate in the elections, he was shot dead three days later. Officials said the order to kill him came from Taliban authorities.

These accounts demonstrate the confusing, contradictory forces at work as the government in Kabul, with encouragement from the United Nations and the Obama administration, attempts to find a peaceful way out of a conflict that has taken thousands of lives since 2001, involved tens of thousands of foreign troops and become entangled in a wider, increasingly deadly regional campaign for Islamist control.

According to experts and officials here, including several Afghans who served in the Taliban government of 1996 to 2001, there is a widespread desire among Afghan Taliban fighters to seek a settlement that would end intervention by NATO forces on one side and foreign Islamists, including al-Qaeda, on the other.

But on Wednesday, a coordinated attack by suicide bombers on a government complex in the southern city of Kandahar underscored the sustained level of insurgent violence that continues to plague Afghanistan. In the midday attack, which killed 14 people, three bombers disguised as police officers stormed the compound after a fourth detonated a truck outside the gates. Some 80 fighters have been killed in clashes with Afghan and NATO forces in the past four days alone.

“We are very concerned about the foreign fighters and al-Qaeda, and we are trying to isolate the Afghan Taliban from them,” said Anwar Rahmani, a Muslim cleric and national legislator who has been asked by President Hamid Karzai to reach out to the Taliban. “They are Afghans, too, and they should be part of our government.”

Rahmani, who wears a dark turban and long beard, held several government posts during Taliban rule but never joined the movement. He said the best plan might be to open talks on lesser issues, such as releasing prisoners, in order to build trust and move toward larger insurgent demands, such as the withdrawal of NATO troops. Karzai has dispatched other emissaries, including one of his brothers and a former Taliban ambassador, to hold preliminary talks with insurgents.

The Afghan government has also received strong support for peace talks from the Obama administration, which fears being dragged into an open-ended war. This week, Karzai and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed the issue at a conference in The Hague, where Clinton said moderate Taliban insurgents should be offered “an honorable form of reconciliation” if they abandon their armed fight and break ties with al-Qaeda.

But Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid rejected the offer Wednesday, calling it a “lunatic idea,” according to the Reuters news agency. There is strong resistance to negotiations among some Taliban leaders and their powerful allies abroad, including groups in Pakistan and in Persian Gulf nations. The experts and officials said this poses enormous obstacles to a peaceful settlement and will make it difficult to extricate the Afghan conflict from the growing ideological and strategic war surrounding it.

Afghans as well as foreign diplomats pointed to neighboring Pakistan — specifically to individuals and groups within its military, intelligence and religious communities — as the central arbiters of Afghanistan’s fate. While the Pakistani government is officially aligned with the United States against the Taliban, the Pakistani military and intelligence service played a critical role in creating the Afghan Islamist militia during the 1990s. Analysts say that elements within Pakistan retain an interest in keeping Afghanistan unstable and the Taliban active, but they have shown they can rein in the Afghan fighters when it suits their needs.

“The key is to get the big players in Pakistan to sign on to the elections,” said one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. In 2004, he said, Pakistani officials agreed to support elections in Afghanistan at Washington’s request and sent out the word through several key intermediaries; as a result the polling was entirely peaceful.

The diplomat and several Afghan experts said that the same thing happened during the recent voter registration here, and that it could happen again in August if Taliban “handlers” in Pakistan approve bringing the Afghan insurgents — who depend on outside support for weapons, money and physical sanctuary — into the election. “It worked before, and we are all working hard to ensure it works in August,” the diplomat said.

But there are other factors, especially the stunning growth of extremist Islamist ideology in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, that may be spilling beyond the control of such institutional handlers. In the past several years, religious militants have gained dominance over much of Pakistan’s tribal northwest, and they are now asserting responsibility for a series of deadly terrorist attacks across the country.

Recent efforts by Pakistani authorities to negotiate peace accords with several of these groups now appear to be in serious jeopardy. One peace deal with Taliban fighters that included imposing strict Islamic law in the scenic Swat Valley, seen by some as a possible role model for Afghanistan, seemed to be collapsing Wednesday in a rash of Taliban kidnappings and assassination attempts against area officials.

In Afghanistan, some experts said the original limited goals of the Taliban leaders, who took power in 1996 seeking to build an orderly Islamic state, have metastasized through exposure to al-Qaeda and radicalized Pakistani militants into a more ambitious target of world Islamist dominance.

Unlike the original Taliban, mostly Afghan villagers who fought with rifles and grenades, the new insurgents employ suicide bombings and other terrorist tactics associated with extreme indoctrination. “The Taliban will negotiate smaller issues for their own interests, but they will never be ready to negotiate peace,” said Waheed Mojda, a former government aide during Taliban rule who now lectures and writes about the insurgency. “Their ideology is much broader now. It has become a world struggle for an Islamic caliphate with Afghanistan at the center. They don’t want to participate in political power. What they want to do is keep fighting, to kill and be killed.”

The evidence for such thinking is becoming more grimly apparent with incidents such as the murder of the Taliban commander in Wardak. In Kandahar province, Mojda said, some local insurgents wanted to participate in voter registration but were forbidden from doing so. In Helmand province, where several districts are now under Taliban rule, one insurgent leader told al-Jazeera television this week that he would like to reconcile but feared for his life.

Even members of the national council of Muslim clergy here, who strongly urged Karzai to begin negotiations with the Taliban, are alarmed and confused about the increasingly violent militancy in Pakistan.

“We need to negotiate with our own people. It is the only way to bring peace,” said Enayatullah Balegh, leader of a Kabul mosque and a member of the clerical council. “But we cannot trust Pakistan or the Taliban there. They keep calling for justice, but they keep beheading people. With those Taliban, there can be no justice and no peace.”

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 3, 2009; A08

New Afghan law worries Nato chief

Nato’s head says it could be difficult to persuade European countries to contribute more troops to Afghanistan because of controversial new laws.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the planned laws violated human rights and were unjustifiable when Nato troops were dying to protect universal values.

Critics say the law limits the rights of women from the Shia minority and authorises rape within marriage.

Aides to President Karzai insist the law provides more protection for women.

Permission

Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the BBC’s Mark Mardell: “We are there to defend universal values and when I see, at the moment, a law threatening to come into effect which fundamentally violates women’s rights and human rights, that worries me.”

He added: “I have a problem to explain and President Karzai knows this, because I discussed it with him. I have a problem to explain to a critical public audience in Europe, be it the UK or elsewhere, why I’m sending the guys to the Hindu Kush.”

France’s Human Rights Minister Rama Yade also expressed her “sharp concern” at the law, saying it “recalls the darkest hours of Afghanistan’s history”.

The UN earlier said it was seriously concerned about the potential impact of the law.

Human rights activists say it reverses many of the freedoms won by Afghan women in the seven years since the Taleban were driven from power.

They say it removes the right of women to refuse their husbands sex, unless they are ill.

Women will also need to get permission from their husbands if they want to leave their homes, unless there is an emergency.

The law covers members of Afghanistan’s Shia minority, who make up 10% of the population.

It was rushed through parliament in February and was backed by influential Shia clerics and Shia political parties.

Defenders of the law say it is an improvement on the customary laws which normally decide family matters.

A separate family law for the Sunni majority is now also being drawn up.

Nato is holding its annual summit in Strasbourg.

President Obama is to present his new Afghan strategy to his allies.

Ahead of the meeting, a number of leading charities warned that an increase in military deployments in Afghanistan could lead to a rise in civilian casualties.

They called on Nato leaders gathering in Strasbourg to do more to protect the population.

Last year more than 2,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan.

In a report titled Caught in the Conflict, 11 aid groups including Oxfam, ActionAid and Care called on Nato to change the way it operates.

“The troop surge will fail to achieve greater overall security and stability unless the military prioritise the protection of Afghan civilians,” Matt Waldman, head of policy for Oxfam International on Afghanistan, said.

Story from BBC NEWS: