Afghanistan - a report from the ground

Posted in Broader Middle East | 26-May-04 | Author: Konrad Freytag

Bazaar in Konduz.
Bazaar in Konduz.
Many European-based media are focusing on success or failure in Iraq. The war and its aftermath in Afghanistan are obviously out of sight of the public, forgotten “behind the Hindukush Mountains,” although more than 30 European states (among them 25 of the 26 NATO nations) are militarily engaged in the country’s pacification and reconstruction. How do the military perform, in ISAF as well as in Operation Enduring Freedom? The international commitment of more than 10,000 military forces is costly. Is it worth the investment of so many soldiers? How do the Afghans view this international help and co-operation, and how do they handle their own country? Enough questions to have a deeper look at “the scene” over there.

The German Air Force offered me a lift to Afghanistan. Our 6½-hours flight ended in Uzbekistan on Termez airfield, a large installation close to the Uzbek-Afghan border, clearly built in the Soviet era, and shaped for earlier Soviet activities of “international solidarity”.

On the ground in Termez is the “Airlift Detachment 3”, run by a German air force colonel and approximately 250 military men and women. The unit was established in Spring 2002 and since then (and with more than 4,500 flying hours), has turned around over 50,000 air passengers and 4,200 tons of cargo.

Six C-160 Transall regularly fly all personnel and a lot of materials to Kabul and Konduz, sometimes also to Herat and Bagram. A seventh C-160, specifically manned and equipped, is on standby for any type of medical evacuation from Afghan soil. The German air transportation fleet is complemented with three medium transport helicopters CH-53, which support the activities of the Konduz-based Provincial Reconstruction Team one flying hour away. Germany has invested € 8 million into Termez airfield infrastructure, and in 2003 alone the cost for POL, messing and feeding, ground handling and host nation support was almost € 2 million. The German team, very importantly, has its own weather forecast service on hand.

“Our aircrews collect a fairly high amount of flying hours over Afghan territory. This is good for flight experience,” says Colonel Jörg Lebert. And he adds, the flights “over these mountains with an aircraft not really designed for flights at altitudes of 20,000 feet and higher, and with no ground-based air traffic control systems, and still with the threat of anti-aircraft missiles” would be done only in daylight.

My 45-minute flight to Konduz ended in dust on the “gravel runway”. The tower and the other airfield facilities, built by Soviet forces in the ‘80s, are in ruins, but the daily flight Termez-Konduz-Kabul works and is a very important line of communications for the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

The Northern Afghan green province of Konduz, with 90,000 km², is historically considered to be the “breadbasket” of the country. The terrain provides good agricultural conditions for two consecutive, rich harvests per year (wheat, rice) and for an excellent fruit crop. But today’s farming is primitive in nature; the lack of agricultural equipment is obvious, and war damage and a mine threat are great obstacles for progress.

from left: Colonel Reinhard Kuhn, GE Army with regional and local leaders: "Provincial Reconstruction Teams are paramount for "nation building".
from left: Colonel Reinhard Kuhn, GE Army with regional and local leaders: "Provincial Reconstruction Teams are paramount for "nation building".
Exclusive Worldsecuritynetwork interview with Colonel Reinhard Kuhn, commander of the PRT in Konduz written by: Konrad Freytag

The PRT is headquartered on the outskirts of Konduz city in a large orchard plantation. The site was chosen by the US army when they established the first PRT; the Germans enlarged the well-secured facility (and pay a high € amount for monthly rent to the landowner).

Colonel Reinhard Kuhn, German Army, the third German PRT commander, has been here since early April 2004. He is the boss of 200+ troops from Germany, Hungary, France, Belgium, and the US. The NATO PRT reports to ISAF in Kabul.

Question: How do you assess the situation?

Colonel Kuhn: There is an absence of enemy military actions, but no peace. The situation is quite stable but not really safe. There is potential danger, but I am comfortable so far that we “are in control” of the situation.

Question: What is your mission?

Colonel Kuhn: Together with the local security forces, to provide a secure and safe environment, help strengthen the central government’s power in the Northern provinces, and build confidence by appropriate measures.

Question: Tell me about your concept of operation.

Colonel Kuhn: Forward, step-by-step, no big jumps! More seriously: since we want success, we had to choose a broad approach. It is a combination of military actions, steps to help Afghans help themselves, political activities, and humanitarian measures. So, we perform foot patrols and long distance “show-of-flag” trips, we unprime explosive devices or mark areas for de-mining, etc. We help organize and secure projects – for example, lately in Konduz city, a province-wide agriculture fair, the so-called “Farmers Day”. We assist NGOs in their activities of repairing the sophisticated farmland-watering systems; we monitor the regional training of police forces, and many more issues.

Afghan farmer and his team of oxen.
Afghan farmer and his team of oxen.
Question: With whom do you cooperate, who are your partners?

Colonel Kuhn: First of all, we execute “partnership in leadership”, myself and the representatives from Germany’s Foreign Office and the Interior Ministry here in our compound. Among our partners outside the camp are the local authorities like the province governor, the militia commander, the police chief, the city mayor, senior clan members (as we can identify them), NGOs, and any other groups with no enemy behaviour.

Question: Any success so far?

Colonel Kuhn: Not easy to measure. But when smiling children carry well-water from a pump we installed; when policemen perform their duty out of a police station built by German military engineers; when garbage and waste are put in the former diesel barrels we placed at the sidewalks as trash cans; when I am welcomed in the governor’s council meeting; when our soldiers are asked for advice in whatever situation…aren’t these happenings already signs of success? I think so, although there is still a long way before us.

Question: What is your vision for the region?

Colonel Kuhn: Rebuilding the country takes time. It is the people who have to make the changes; it is their country. They certainly appreciate our assistance. But we, the international community, can only give incentives. Here is one idea for the future: we have started construction work for a new PRT base on the plateau next to the airfield. In about two years, or sooner, we will move out of the plantation here in town and operate from outside the city. And when the ISAF mission is completed—and at present nobody can tell you when that will be—the new compound will be handed over for Afghan use, perhaps the logistics base for “Airport Konduz”!

Certainly Konduz city and its 120,000+ inhabitants have seen better days; the infrastructure bears the mark of a 25-years’ war. There is dust and mud, some people seem degenerated. But one can sense there is the basis for a better future “with the help of our NATO friends”, as Mayor Said Sahangeer says. The market offers everything: fruit, vegetables, chicken and other meat, bread, ice cream…the teahouses are frequented, for local transport horse-drawn coaches and limousine taxis are available all the time. The young men with no respect for traffic rules ride their bicycles, or motorcycles, respectively.

I left Konduz with the clear impression that the conditions are set for a recovery, that the will of the people for reconstruction is there and, at the same time, that there is a need for long-lasting international assistance.

Exclusive Worldsecuritynetwork interview with COMISAF Lieutenant General Rick Hillier written by: Konrad Freytag

It is a short 50-minute flight to Kabul International Airport. The airport operation is in German hands. In addition to the German air force flights there are UN airplanes and a few aircraft from Afghanistan’s airline Ariana.

COMISAF; Lieutenant General Rick Hillier: "We make progress - step by step".
COMISAF; Lieutenant General Rick Hillier: "We make progress - step by step".
Kabul looks awful – the old city in ruins, the government quarters and the king’s palace destroyed, the national museum a wreck.

The sewerage system with open canals is a cloaca, electricity outages happen every day. Goatherds are grazing next to the ISAF compound. However, there is intense traffic on the roads; an unbelievable number of yellow cabs transport busy men to their destinations, sometimes confronted with armoured, on-duty ISAF vehicles. The streets suffocate in traffic and smog, the bazaars are overcrowded.

All the important agencies are present: the UN Mission to Afghanistan, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the OEF coalition headquarters, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the World Bank, etc. The Afghan ministries of Justice, Finances, Foreign Affairs, and Interior Affairs have been rebuilt. The Presidential Palace is heavily guarded and secured, as is the Italian Embassy with its special permanent guest, former King Zahir Shah. The ISAF troops live in big camps on the outskirts of Kabul from where they carry out the mission. They are omnipresent in town.

My meeting with Lieutenant General Rick Hillier of the Canadian Army took place at ISAF Headquarters in the center of Kabul.

Question: When did you take over command?

Lieutenant General Hillier: The Commander-in-Chief of NATO’s Allied Forces Northern Europe, General Gerhard Back, German Air Force, assigned the mission to me in February 2004, here in Kabul. I am the fifth ISAF commander. As you know, the first ISAF mission was commanded by the United Kingdom, followed by a Turkish Army General; ISAF III was done by the Dutch/German Corps. NATO assumed command with ISAF IV for the first time. I am the 2nd commander wearing a NATO “hat”.

Question: Is this a special mission for you?

Lieutenant General Hillier: Well, if you mean whether it would be my first such NATO job then the answer is “no”. I also commanded a NATO force in the Balkans. But when we view it geographically ISAF is the Alliance’s first-ever mission outside the Euro-Atlantic area and, of course, this makes it special. I find it very demanding, since the NATO involvement demonstrates the alliance nations’ continuing long-term commitment to stability and security for the Afghan people.

Question:What is the mission?

Lieutenant General Hillier: We are to assist the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan in the maintenance of a safe and secure environment conducive to free and fair elections, the spread of the rule of law, and the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And, as directed by UN Security Council Resolutions, ISAF is additionally tasked to help the Afghan authorities train new Afghan security and armed forces, and demilitarize former military and other structures.

Question: How do you view the situation?

Ruins in Kabul.
Ruins in Kabul.
Lieutenant General Hillier: The mission is clear, the concept of operation is sound; my soldiers bring in superb motivation and excellent skills. The concept for provincial reconstruction is good; the NATO PR Team in Konduz is running well. There are good conditions for change. Some incidents remind us that there is an enemy still able to produce some speed bumps, but he cannot prevent ISAF from doing a good job for Afghanistan’s security. So at present, Kabul and the airport area are calm, the security situation is improving.

Question: How is the international support?

Lieutenant General Hillier: Militarily, I get what I need. The troop-contributing nations send very professional experts over here. This allows me flexibility in operations. Politically, the many international visitors to Kabul prove to me that there is international commitment for Afghanistan’s future. The DDR-process (Demilitarization, Democratization, Reconstruction) following the Tokyo conference is well in hand.

Question: Canada is always among the first countries to engage in peace support operations. Is this your country’s “second nature”?

Lieutenant General Hillier: Well, we Canadians have a wonderful country and we live there in peace and prosperity. We are founding members of a great alliance, NATO. I believe, when people enjoy such conditions of life, it is only fair to care for those who live in misery and who are in need of help.

A few facts on the ISAF:

ISAF is the NATO-led, United Nations-mandated operation in Afghanistan authorized by several UN Security Council Resolutions. There are more than 6,400 soldiers under ISAF command, including the Konduz PRT. The force currently comprises 34 nations. HQ ISAF is manned with 500 service personnel from 18 NATO nations and nine non-NATO nations.

An ISAF Backgrounder states: “COMISAF intends to continue ongoing operations to improve the security situation within Kabul and its environs by closely cooperating with and mentoring Afghan security institutions to reduce their reliance on ISAF capabilities. COMISAF’s focus will be to conduct military operations in close coordination and cooperation with the Afghan authorities, UNAMA, other civilian agencies in theatre and, the US-led coalition, to achieve security, stability and freedom of movement within the ISAF area of operations and, to assist the Afghan authorities in their efforts to rebuild the country and, establish a stable society. Within means and capabilities, COMISAF will support reconstruction, disaster relief and humanitarian aid efforts in response to requests from aid agencies”.

The travel report would not be complete without talking about Operation Enduring Freedom. The US-led coalition force has its Combined Forces Command in Kabul. The ground operations are directed out of Bagram North of Kabul. Bagram airfield is an enormous base. The line of communication to Kabul forms a 100-km concrete strip built in the ‘80s by Soviet engineers. It crosses one river and passes through plain terrain. No surprises, good for tank operations.

Exclusive Worldsecuritynetwork interview with Major General Eric T. Olson in Bagram written by: Konrad Freytag

Major General Eric T. Olson with the author: "We are at war with terrorism".
Major General Eric T. Olson with the author: "We are at war with terrorism".
And so, on my way to Bagram I noticed armoured vehicle wrecks, former Taliban command posts, a lot of destruction, and many checkpoints manned by Afghan soldiers.

In mid-April the US forces of Combined Joint Task Force 180 conducted at Bagram airfield the transfer of authority from the 10th Mountain Division to the 25th Infantry Division (light) out of Hawaii. Major General Eric T. Olson, US Army, commands CJTF 180. He has been assigned to NATO, was based in Germany, served a tour in Somalia, and is a Desert Storm veteran. The highly decorated general graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs, and he holds a Masters of Arts Degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University. I had a chance to ask a few questions.

Question: General, how are you? How is life in Bagram?

Major General Olson: Different from Hawaii, different from Iraq of the ‘90s. My troops will stay here for 12 months, our successors will stay the same rotation time. I believe it is good for the mission. Our contribution to stability and security is an enormous effort. It takes time, no quick ins-and-outs!

Question: What is the situation on the ground here?

Major General Olson: We are at war with terrorism. The enemy is there and we see him watching us. We are ready and determined to fight him up to the end, be it Al-Qaida or Taliban, warlords or Hekmatyar or any name you want.

Question: How would you describe your mission?

Major General Olson: Kill or capture Al-Qaida/Taliban, deny a sanctuary for terrorists. This fighting activity occupies approximately 15% of our time. The vast majority of activities lie with setting the conditions for stability:

- We train the Afghan National Army (and I appreciate Germany’s assistance there with the embedded training team).

- As conditions allow, we conduct civil-military and humanitarian assistance operations.

Afghan Army tank wreck checkpoint.
Afghan Army tank wreck checkpoint.
From my 8,000 men and women there are 2,500 deployed throughout Afghanistan. We run 15 Provincial Reconstruction Teams, some in cooperation with the Afghan Army, one led by the UK and one by Australia. Their concept is a bit different from the NATO-PRT, however they are efficient, too.

Question: How long do you think CJTF 180 will fight in Afghanistan?

Major General Olson: Who knows? I cannot put a label with a timing on Operation Enduring Freedom, but I see a very long US engagement in Afghanistan. Whether the international community keeps running two separate operations, or in the near or far future the operation is unified under NATO command, is worth thinking of.

When I left Bagram airfield, I saw the same special trucks of Ecology contractors I noticed in Konduz and Kabul. This company must make millions of dollars providing mobile toilet cleaning support.

I departed from Afghanistan with perhaps more questions than I had on arriving. Yes, there are many signs of hope and there is international political will for military and other assistance to shape Afghanistan’s future. How long will it last?

For the return to Germany my C-160 Transall took off from Kabul airfield which is heavily war-damaged. The ISAF study for rehabilitating Kabul International Airport mentions a cost estimate of US $38.03 million. Who will pay?