Beyond 2014 there is still a lot to do

November 13, 2011

By:Thomas Kieschnick

In a Heinrich-Böll-Foundation organized roundtable discussion Afghan journalists as well as international NGO-workers had the opportunity to aim their critical questions towards the outgoing ISAF-spokesman General Blotz. The main focus was the upcoming transition in 2014 as well as perspectives for Afghanistan and the international commitment beyond this date.

In June 2011, Heinrich-Böll-Foundation Afghanistan organized a roundtable with the ISAF-spokesman, German General Joseph Blotz in its Kabul office. Three Afghan journalists and a number of German NGO-workers followed the invitation and used the opportunity to exchange views on urgent issues concerning the transition of security responsibility in 2014 and the intensifying international calls for the negotiations with the Taliban.

As the date 2014 is approaching, and along with that the prospects of negotiations with the Taliban are mounting, there are a lot of unanswered questions among the Afghan society as well as the international community concerning the concrete ISAF policies on the state building project in Afghanistan. Most of the discussion, therefore, circled around these insecurities, given the fact that the roundtable posed an opportunity to gain information beyond official ISAF statements.

In this context Mr. Sanjar Sohail, publisher of the independent Afghan newspaper 8am raised the concern that the current ISAF policy focusing strongly on arming, training and increasing the number of Afghan national security forces, will leave Afghan society highly militarized, so it might slide into a military dictatorship. General Blotz therefore pointed to the balance between civilian and military engagement of ISAF forces and development organizations but could not really dispel the possibility of this scenario. Quite the opposite, he mentioned numbers that spoke out a bitter reality in the perception of the other attendants. With the aim of 354.000 men and women under weapons, under the label of ‘Afghan National Security Forces’ Afghanistan will have an armed-unarmed men ratio that exceeds that of (other) democratic countries by far. Although he stressed that conditions in Afghanistan are quite uneasy as it is still a conflict zone with an unstable neighborhood, the question of how these conditions should contribute to a free and democratic Afghanistan with a vital civil society remained unanswered. At the same time, fluctuation in and out Afghan security forces is strong, so the number of people having gone through the training might diverge significantly from the number of people de-facto under arms.

With Mr. Abdul Muqeem, a journalist from Saba TV, raising critical questions in the same direction, a controversial discussion started. It was obvious that the question of security is of central concern for Afghans and international actors but as there are different understandings of what security can be for Afghanistan there are different approaches followed to achieve this aim.

Another question by journalist Ms Sona Sahar from Radio voice of freedom opened the discussion on different tactics applied by Taliban and ISAF as the warring parties involved in the military conflict in Afghanistan. It was stated that the Taliban are more effective in their propaganda and that the ISAF has many difficulties to gain legitimacy and credibility in this, as General Blotz declared, “war of perceptions”. As history has shown, wars are not solely fought on battlefields but also within the public opinion. Affirming this view, Mr. Blotz explained the lack of legitimacy of the ISAF engagement in the Afghan people´s perception with cultural and language barriers but did not question Western military engagement in itself. He claimed that ISAF is on the right site not only on the battlefield and that he considers the ‘truth’ as the only maxim for ISAF reports whereas Taliban statements can be labeled war propaganda. “In case of an incident,” he said, “Taliban are very quick in issuing a statement. International forces first engage in fact finding and only then come up with an official statement.” At that point of time, public opinion in most cases has already accepted the first available version. While personally always strongly engaged in improving ISAF press work, General Blot stressed that in any case “deeds should be more important than words”, so ISAF should not overstress its focus on media coverage.

The roundtable discussion at the facilities of Heinrich-Böll-Foundation in Kabul shows that reliable, non-partisan information on the Afghanistan conflict can hardly be received by relying solely on sources of either of the conflict parties. Talking about battleground ‘realities’ is predominantly not oriented in representing the truth but to explain and justify the own actions. The vivid discussion at this occasion shows that there is interest in exchange and this opportunity was embraced by all participants.