Interview with Tom Koenigs

"No Military Victory in Sight"

The UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, says the Afghans need to be placed as quickly as possible in a position where they can fight out the conflict with the Taliban on their own. Martin Gerner met with him in Kabul

Tom Koenigs (photo: Kabul Press)
Tom Koenigs: "In an asymmetrical conflict like this, there is no military victory in sight, at least not the kind that they had in the Middle Ages"

​​The Taliban have indicated that it won't be an easy winter for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karsai and NATO. What do you expect?

Tom Koenigs: I don't expect anything specific at the end of the year, but I do expect that the intensity of the conflict will not diminish, at least not over the coming year. We cannot say that the Taliban have admitted defeat, and when it comes to the Afghan government, we cannot say that governmental structures have been sufficiently stabilized so that it can defend itself against the Taliban by civilian and military means.

How close are the Taliban actually to taking Kabul?

Koenigs: There are no clear military fronts. This is a national uprising that involves certain segments of the population and an asymmetrical type of warfare. In the south, the Taliban control the countryside in six provinces, but not the cities. Across the country there are terrorist attacks, primarily in the southeast and the capital, and we anticipate that this will continue for quite some time.

An uprising means that the population has joined forces with the Taliban or how should we interpret this?

Koenigs: There are segments of the population that sympathize with the Taliban for a number of different reasons. Some support them for ideological reasons because they believe that infidels should not march into the country, others for economic reasons – probably the majority – because they hope to get money if they fight for the Taliban. Some are rebelling because their group or community has been rejected by the government.

Then there are opportunists who firmly believe that Jihad can achieve worldwide victory. And then there are those who come from Pakistan and work together with international terrorist groups, and of course there are those individuals who come from the Taliban movement of the late nineties.

How can we defeat this diverse resistance?

Koenigs: I think an entire range of measures are necessary, although military campaigns only cover part of that. I don't think that we can defeat this uprising by military means or policing alone. A good deal of what we have been seeing since last summer has been launched from Pakistan. As a result, we have to include the Pakistanis in diplomatic efforts.

Then we have to improve the type of government that exists in the provinces. We have to reach out to the districts and communities, because up until now the government has made only extremely tentative moves, and these have focused on the provincial capitals.

And finally, we have to include the population in development aid initiatives. What's more, we urgently need to extend the institutions of law and order to remote areas because one of the things that the Taliban offers is justice, ensuring that criminals are brought to justice and mediating internal conflicts.

If the state has not installed an impartial system of justice, then the peasants will turn to whoever happens to be there, even if it is the Taliban.

Is NATO's military campaign in the south following a clear strategy? President Karsai himself recently criticized that an increasing number of civilians have been suffering from NATO attacks.

Koenigs: First of all, it's important to point out that the Taliban do not spare civilians at all during their military operations. Suicide bombers are aimed almost exclusively at causing civilian casualties. The Taliban make absolutely no efforts to protect civilians. Unfortunately, civilian casualties from the NATO campaign have recently risen, for example, from heavy shelling.

Now there is no such thing as a war without civilian casualties. But all sides have a duty to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible. Dead civilians, injured non-combatants, and displaced persons also severely tarnish the reputation of the international forces.

That's why I feel that NATO and the coalition forces need to place the Afghans as quickly as possible in a position where they can fight out the conflict on their own, because that would be much more widely accepted. Then one of the main arguments of the Taliban – that these are foreign invaders – would no longer hold water.

You have to consider that among the general population, even in the south, 80 percent are against the Taliban. They do not accept what the Taliban represent ideologically. People reject the constant threat and the Talibanization of their culture. That's why the conflict has to become a national cause and the Afghans have to be placed in a position where they can resolve it on their own.

What is actually the goal of the military operation? Are they supposed to fight until the Taliban lay down their arms?

Koenigs: The goal is that everyone recognizes the authority of the democratically elected government, even those who are in the opposition, and that everyone lays down their arms. That is also the objective of the NATO mandate. And over the long term, the Afghans will have to do this themselves. We should work to achieve this objective.

In an asymmetrical conflict like this, there is no military victory in sight, at least not the kind that they had in the Middle Ages. We can only gradually strengthen the authority of the democratically elected government and the rule of law. This is exactly what we want and what the Taliban are attacking.

The Afghans have accorded themselves a democratic constitution that enjoys widespread support among the population. That is the foundation upon which state institutions should work. But this is unfortunately not yet the case. We are fighting against corruption, but also against poor decisions by Karsai's government in the provinces and in the political leadership of the districts.

What role should Germany play in this military conflict?

Koenigs: Germany should play the same role as all the others and work to guarantee stability in the country under the leadership of NATO. At the same time, the Germans should help build Afghan institutions, so Afghans can shape these themselves.

I think that time is running out quickly and we can't hold out much longer with the fight that NATO is leading on its own out there. We are not in a political position to continue and the Afghans will definitely not stand for it much longer. That's why we have to do everything in our power to put the Afghan police and army in a position to resolve this conflict on their own. This would be much less of an affront for Afghans who tend to support the Taliban out of a feeling of infringement upon their national sovereignty.

Martin Gerner

© 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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