BERLIN, March 25 (UPI) -- Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a troop surge of 30,000 to win the war but in the United States and in Europe, public support for the NATO mission is fading -- also because Taliban are killing an increasing number of Western soldiers.
Rolf Tophoven, the director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy and Germany's most senior terrorism expert, spent a week in Afghanistan talking to NATO troops and intelligence officers to analyze the security situation on the ground. United Press International's Berlin Correspondent Stefan Nicola spoke to Tophoven about the situation of the roughly 4,000 German Bundeswehr troops in northern Afghanistan, where security has deteriorated drastically over the past year. First of two parts.
UPI. The Afghanistan conflict has been going on for nearly nine years. What is key to winning the war there?
Tophoven. One of many factors is to actually help the local population. Near Mazar-i-Sharif, the Bundeswehr scored points when it stepped in after heavy rainfalls cut off an entire region. The Bundeswehr supplied the local population out of the air.
This mission was presented to a group of local journalists when I was in Afghanistan and I could see from their reactions that civil operations like these are key to winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans. That's why I think it is to recommend that NATO's new strategy sets a strong civil focus. NATO has to convince the population that its reconstruction and security measures are better for their daily lives than the rule of the Taliban.
Q. NATO also wants to boost training efforts for Afghan military and police to be able to start leaving the country in the summer of 2011.
A. Yes, but especially police training remains inadequate. Germany has had the task of training police in the north but has not been able to provide enough trainers for the job. The problem is that the German government can't force state police to work in Afghanistan and very few are actually willing to go there.
German and American military police have stepped in but their training naturally had a strong military focus. That's not an optimal situation. Of course there are additional problems: Because of their low wages, Afghan police are often corrupt or defectors. The drug lords pay them much more.
Q. Let's get back to the civil aspect. How does the Bundeswehr, which has 4,000 troops in the north, realize this?
A. In the region near Mazar-i-Sharif, special German liaison officers go into the surrounding villages to speak to the malik -- that's what the mayor is called -- and build up mutual trust.
The malik informs the officer about his village's infrastructure needs -- it might need electricity, water or roads. He also tries to place his people inside the camp, where around 800 civilians are working for a monthly salary of up to $240 -- that's a small fortune for them.
In return, the Germans get information regarding the Taliban and the overall security. The German camp in Mazar-i-Sharif is protected by an air force regiment. The situation around Mazar-i-Sharif remains relatively calm. It's different in Kunduz, where the Germans have a large presence.
Q. Why has the situation deteriorated in and around Kunduz?
A. Unlike Mazar-i-Sharif, where a lot of Tadjiks are living, Kunduz has a big population of Pashtuns, an ethnic group that also forms the majority of the Taliban. So far, the Taliban have been most active in the south and southeast. But NATO is attacking them fiercely. The greater the NATO pressure on the Taliban in the south, the more insurgents are being funneled into the north, where they attack Bundeswehr troops.
Q. And they kill an increasing number of them.
A. Yes, the Taliban attack with improvised explosive devices located on the side of the road or below plates on the road -- similar to mines. The Taliban used to set off the IEDs with electronic detonators but after NATO forces went on to jam the frequencies they are now set off the old fashioned way: manually via a wire, from a distance of up to half a mile.
Q. So the Taliban analyze NATO troops' behavior?
A. Oh, definitely. The Taliban have spied upon the methods of the Bundeswehr. Until recently, when a German armored patrol vehicle was attacked, the strategy was to drive through the ambush and stop later to observe the situation and plan additional tactical maneuvers.
The Taliban last May for the first time exploited this strategy. They set off an IED next to a Dingo armored vehicle and the Germans responded as usual, by speeding ahead. Yet around a mile after the IED attack, they had prepared a professional military ambush. The Germans drove into it and a heavy firefight ensued that killed a German corporal.
Q. That sounds like the Taliban are becoming more professional.
A. Much more professional. An intelligence officer told me that the IEDs they use are becoming better and better and by now are "damn good." This expertise comes from Taliban who have been especially trained in camps in Pakistan to make and use IEDs.
Q. How does the German army react to those changing realities?
A. Well, in the case of IED attacks, they now leave their armored vehicle and start firing back. Several Taliban insurgents have recently been killed that way. That's psychologically very important.