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Afghanistan: Top NATO Official Defends ISAF's Record

By Ahto Lobjakas

BRUSSELS, October 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- One of NATO's highest-ranking officers in Afghanistan says the alliance's International Security Assistance Force won't be able to secure the country before the Afghan National Army achieves full strength "in three to four" years' time.

Speaking this month to journalists via videolink from Kabul, ISAF Chief of Staff and German Major General Bruno Kasdorf also said most of the responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan rested with other international organizations, like the United Nations and the European Union.

NATO appears increasingly on the defensive in attempts to stabilize Afghanistan. But Major General Kasdorf offered a spirited defense, in his video meeting with reporters on October 11, of the achievements of Western forces in that country.

He cited ISAF's military successes in fighting insurgents, as well as growing access to education, health care, and jobs for the general public. Kasdorf blamed what he called the "mainstream media" for complicating ISAF's job with its "negative" and "alarming" coverage of events in Afghanistan -- all of which, he said, served to "give a false impression of an all-out war."

'Lack Of Troops'

Kasdorf also conceded that many of the benefits of the ISAF presence were limited to about two-thirds of the country -- the relatively stable north, west, and center -- but not the Taliban-contested south and east.

He said the problem was a "desperate" lack of troops, and challenged NATO states to rectify the situation.

"With 40,000 troops, ISAF has not [what] is really required to ensure security throughout this big country, [which] is more than twice as big as Germany, for instance," he said. "So we desperately need all the contributions from the different member nations of NATO."

But with a seeming lack of resolve among contributing Western states, there is little hope that ISAF troop levels will rise. Instead, Kasdorf went on to say, ISAF and Afghanistan will continue to be hamstrung in the south and the east.

"Since we haven't got enough forces, we can ensure security only in certain areas," he said. "We do hope that we have enough forces available at the latest in three to four years for all of Afghanistan when the Afghan national security forces have been built up and trained."

Kasdorf also said NATO and allied troops would be well served by better equipment, although their adversaries in Afghanistan are generally armed with much less advanced weaponry.

While ISAF struggles to hold territory in the south in the absence of a strong Afghan military or police presence, Kasdorf said two important elements must wait: reconstruction and governance. He said ISAF's main job -- facing down the insurgency -- accounts for just "20-25 percent" of the total task in Afghanistan. Kasdorf suggested that the rest of the work must be done by international organizations like the UN and the European Union.

Kasdorf, who is also Germany's highest-ranking military official in Afghanistan, defended Berlin's reluctance to send troops to the volatile south. He described German forces as being "optimized" for service in northern Afghanistan, and said it would "make no sense" to dislocate them to the south.

Kasdorf characterized the Taliban insurgency as Pashtun-derived, with its leaders recruited mostly on the Pakistani side of the disputed border. He said Taliban foot soldiers were mostly recruited with promises of cash or through intimidation.

But Kasdorf suggested that many locals worked with insurgents out of ignorance of ISAF's goals. In an attempt to reduce popular resentment among a predominantly illiterate population, ISAF is setting up its own network of radio stations and is also handing out "wind-up radios" to reach listeners in areas with poor infrastructure.

He said ISAF was also trying to reach locals in restive areas in "traditional ways," by working through elders and other community leaders. But he said there was room for improvement in ISAF's work in that area.

"What we also do is [that] we work with the Afghan government to use, to take advantage of, the traditional ways of communicating -- to talk through the maleks, through the mullahs, and by taking also advantage of the mosques," he said. "That is the way you reach the people. But it is tough, and we [could do it] better."

Kasdorf stressed that ISAF continued to see military success as its main deterrent against Taliban recruitment in the east and south of the country.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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