The Kunduz incident has led to the compulsion, felt for a while already, for Berlin to redefine the German role in Afghanistan.

Two fuel trucks hijacked from a German convoy get stuck in mud on the Kunduz river banks in northern Afghanistan. The irate German commander orders an air strike, while desperately poor people crowd around the trucks at the fascinating prospect of accessing free fuel. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation handed down to the Taliban a big political victory as a result of the air strikes in Kunduz, which left around 100 people dead. The Taliban portrays the incident, which occurred a fortnight ago, as “an intentional massacre.”

No matter what the intentions, the air strike ricochets. A sense of shock grips Germany, where over two-thirds of people already favour withdrawal of the 4,500-strong German contingent from Afghanistan. Given the burden of history that Germany is fated to carry, war crime at once becomes a sensitive issue. The political class will keenly watch the groundswell of public opinion panning out in the September 27 federal election.

Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that the international community “apply pressure [on Kabul] in order to find a way to get the Afghans to appreciate that they have to take responsibility step by step … so that the international engagement can be reduced.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, who is Ms Merkel’s main challenger, has been saying for a while that if his party emerges victorious, “as Chancellor I would push for us to develop plans with the new Afghan government to establish a clear perspective for the duration and end of the military engagement.” Berlin’s policies influence other European capitals too. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported, quoting defence sources in London, that both the U.S. and British governments no longer expect any of the NATO’s main partner nations to send more troops to serve in the combat zones in southern Afghanistan.

Indeed, a pall of gloom descended on the two-day European Union (EU) Foreign Ministers meeting in Stockholm. The EU Ministers showed “no optimism or idealism” in their speeches, which were laced with depressing and “occasionally grisly anecdotal evidence” of the war that is going horribly wrong. The disputed presidential elections in Afghanistan and growing Afghan intolerance of foreign involvement — and now the Kunduz incident — dominated the discussions.

Public exchanges

The Kunduz incident has triggered a U.S.-German rift on who was at fault — the German commanders or the U.S. pilot. The two sides are trying to deflect the blame. No military likes to be branded a coward, yet that is what the U.S. critics insinuate about the Bundeswahr’s deployment in northern Afghanistan. Military analyst Anthony Cordesman, who advises the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, lost no time in lampooning the Bundeswehr’s record. He said German soldiers lacked “situational and combat experience” to confront the Taliban on the ground. “They’re as oriented toward staying in their armoured vehicles as any group I’ve met. They’re not active enough to present much of a threat to the Taliban most of the time,” Mr. Cordesman mocked. These are unusual public exchanges for two NATO allies.

Meanwhile, the situation in the northeastern Afghanistan has dramatically worsened in the recent months and the German contingent takes the blame. The Germans used to think that the war was far away as the northern region remained tranquil so far. Der Spiegel wrote: “The Bundeswehr must now come to terms with a fact that Germans have previously found difficult to accept: Winning the war in Afghanistan requires engaging in active combat.” On the other hand, the Taliban is spreading its wings in the northern provinces according to a plan. A stage has come when it is important for the Taliban to demonstrate that it can expand the war to places of its choice. Its tactic aims at overstretching the NATO. Again, the Taliban is establishing its presence on the routes through which the NATO’s supply lines pass from Central Asian states. It is copying a tactic effectively used by the Afghan Mujahideen in the “jihad” against Soviet forces.

Besides, the Taliban is moving up “foreign fighters” to the north as part of a calculated strategy rather than this happening under pressure from the Pakistani military in the tribal areas in the south and southeast. The Afghan Defence Ministry spokesmen have confirmed the arrest of foreign nationals from Kunduz and speculated that cadres of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are involved. If so, it will underscore that there is a grand Taliban/al-Qaeda agenda in the Central Asian region.

At any rate, no one needs to explain to the Taliban the strategic importance of Kunduz, which used to be the centre of its military command in northern Afghanistan before its ouster in October 2001. The demographic structure of the region provides an ideal platform for the Taliban’s political work. The scattered Pashtun, Uzbek and Tajik (and Hazara and Arab) communities and their incessant intra-ethnic and intra-tribal tensions are open to exploitation by the Taliban to broaden its political base in the Amu Darya region. Despite his great skills as a politico-military strategist, Ahmed Shah Massoud began ceding the Kunduz province to the Taliban by 1999. This helped the Taliban consolidate its control over the whole of the Shomali plain, which stretches from Kabul to the mouth of the Panjsher valley, and to effectively intercept the Northern Alliance supply lines from Tajikistan.

Call Dostum back!

The U.S. did a smart thing, engaging the Northern Alliance “warlords” to evict the Taliban from Kunduz in 2001 rather than commit American troops. Equally, the U.S. (and the NATO) may have no choice but to seek out erstwhile Mujahideen commanders whom it decries now as “warlords” — Mohammed Fahim, Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Ismail Khan, etc. — if the Taliban’s inexorable northward march is to be arrested. This is where Hamid Karzai’s political strategy to work with the established local power groups may prove correct. There can be no anti-Taliban strategy in the Amu Darya region, which sidesteps active local participation. The various ethnic groups live as interspersed communities. Kunduz, in particular, is a tinderbox. “Afghanisation” in the quicksands of ethnic politics means depending on local elements that can offer resistance to the Taliban.

Ms Merkel seemed to anticipate the looming crisis when she forcefully stated “the time has come” to Afghanise the war. She unveiled a joint proposal in consultation with Britain and France calling for an international conference on Afghanistan as soon as the next government is formed in Kabul, to press the point with the newly elected Afghan leadership and “to create some momentum.” Ms Merkel has jointly written with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, for convening an international conference on Afghanistan at an early date.

To be sure, Germany has lost its innocence in the Afghan war. For Germany, which carries a huge backlog of history, foreign wars are never going to be easy. On the other hand, there is no farewell to arms merely because the Bundeswehr took 100 innocent Afghan lives. Berlin will weigh that the Afghan war has far-reaching consequences, being vastly more than a fight against international terrorism. It is about the NATO’s future role as a global political organisation and the “unfinished business” of the Cold War, as well as about defining a new world order. All the same, the Kunduz incident has forced the compulsion, which has been felt for a while already, for Berlin to redefine the German role in Afghanistan.

Thus, the German-British-French initiative on Afghanistan is born. The initiative wears a European look but it reflects a trans-Atlantic position that can provide the underpinning of the new Afghan strategy the Barack Obama administration is contemplating. Britain will feel gratified that it played the cementing role in Europe — which in today’s circumstances for Mr. Brown has the added virtue of assuaging the strident domestic public criticism that his government is hopelessly blundering in the Hindu Kush and precious young lives are perishing in a war that makes no sense.

The big question is whether Ms Merkel will insist on a European — and, within that, German — lead role in stabilising Afghanistan. But then, there is the related Russian question. Russia, with which Germany is fostering close ties, will be watching. Moscow too is ready to play a role “politically” in Afghanistan. Moscow and Berlin consult regularly on Afghanistan. However, the ball, as they say, is in Mr. Obama’s court.

The Kunduz incident displayed a ghastly truth. There is Afghan blood equally on the hands of all NATO countries. Conceivably, those who kill may also insist on the right to have a say downstream of the killing. The death in the afternoon on the Kunduz banks symbolises the rites of passage of an infinitely tragic war.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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