When Can Merey, a German journalist of Turkish descent, in 2003 first traveled to the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, the local people were telling him about their enthusiasm over the arrival of German Bundeswehr soldiers in the city. When he went back to Kunduz earlier this year, hardly anyone was willing to talk to him in public: Paralyzed by a fledgling security and a series of terrorist attacks, the locals today fear Taliban spies and the Taliban's targeted killings of anyone who deals with Westerners. "The people are losing their faith in the West," Merey said earlier this week in Berlin at the presentation of his new book, "The Afghan Plight -- Why the West is on the verge of failing at the Hindukush."
Merey, who is the South Asia correspondent for German news agency dpa, in his book details the current problems the West faces in Afghanistan. He does so not by lecturing from afar, but by speaking to the key actors on the ground -- Western soldiers, Taliban rebels, foreign diplomats, local Afghan businessmen, a detained suicide bomber.
Merey's book is reporting in the best sense -- it includes several chapters detailing Afghanistan's key problems: the corrupt and inefficient government of Hamid Karzai; the drug industry that no one has been able to contain or even destroy; NATO bombings that have led to civilian casualties; Pakistan's secret financing and influencing of the Taliban. He tells the story of a man who wants to join the Taliban together with his two sons, because ISAF troops accidentally killed his third boy; yet Merey's book also makes clear that an overwhelming majority of Afghans want the international presence. "Civil war would ensue if we leave now," Merey said.
"This is a politically important book, and a great one journalistically," said Peter Struck, Germany's former defense minister, who once coined the term that Germany's security must be defended "also at the Hindukush."
Of course, Merey also tackles Germany's own problem with the mission in Afghanistan. Some 3,500 German troops are stationed in the northern provinces, tasked mainly with reconstruction efforts. Germany's Cabinet recently agreed to increase the maximum number of troops in Afghanistan by 1,000 to 4,500 soldiers, a decision the public doesn't like. The military contribution in Afghanistan is very unpopular, mainly because security in the country's northern provinces has dramatically deteriorated, resulting in a growing number of terrorist attacks and German casualties.
Next week German parliamentarians have to renew Germany's contribution (they have to do so every year) and political discussions likely will be heated, with lawmakers from government parties voting against the mission.
Struck and Merey agree that there is no alternative to staying in Afghanistan, which "must not become a safe haven for terrorists again," the former defense minister said. And Merey added: "We have given Afghans our word to stay as long as it takes."
But staying also means improving the overall mission.
Experts agree that the West lacks a coherent strategy; an update of that -- taking into account regional differences in Afghanistan -- should be drafted once a new U.S. president takes office in January, said Citha Maas of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin-based think tank.
Merey in his book argues that Washington should fight corruption by pressuring the Karzai government into better behavior (and by increasing salaries of civil servants); that police training, which has been tried unsuccessfully by Germany, should be enforced; that NATO or U.S. troops need to fight opium poppy cultivation; that regional powers, such as Iran and -- most importantly -- Pakistan need to be included to support the West's struggle; that NATO members need to abolish caveats that undermine military efficiency; and that they more strongly communicate that they are willing to finish the job.
"More and more Afghans believe that NATO will meet the same fate as the Soviet Red Army," Merey said. "That's why fewer and fewer Afghans are willing to side with the West. Because after all, who wants to side with a losing team?"