The following interview with Ambassador Michael Steiner appeared on www.tagesspiegel.deon 18 November 2010. The interviewers were Frank Jansen and Michael Schmidt.
Mr Steiner, will NATO have to admit at the summit starting in Lisbon this Friday that it has lost the war in Afghanistan?
No. But that’s not what it’s about anyway. Everyone knows there can’t be a military solution in Afghanistan. In the past the West harboured illusions, but now we are pursuing a realistic goal: to ensure adequate stability in the country and to guarantee essential human rights. There’s not going to be a Switzerland in the Hindu Kush.
But stabilization in Afghanistan is scarcely conceivable without military success.
There have been military successes. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says the Taliban feel the pressure being exerted on them. Now that the number of American troops has been raised – the Bundeswehr has increased its contingent too – NATO has the resources to push its strategy through. When it comes down to it, what’s really needed is an intra-Afghan political solution, reconciliation between adversaries. There’s no alternative to this. If the engagement of a total of 48 countries in Afghanistan were to fail, there would be the risk of chaos in the country and throughout the region.
The Taliban would make use of such chaos.And they can wait until the Americans have withdrawn their combat forces by 2014.
The Taliban can’t win the conflict by military means either. What we and our ISAF partners are aiming for now isn’t direct withdrawal, but rather the gradual handover of responsibility to the Afghan security forces. This transition process is due to begin in 2011. During this process, fewer and fewer international soldiers will be on patrol on the streets and the presence of the Afghan army and police force will be stepped up. The NATO states will not cut back their training for the Afghan security forces. Indeed it will continue even after 2014.
Do you believe the Taliban would give up their close links to al Qaida and other terrorist groups?
That is a key point. The Taliban can only be integrated into a political solution if they recognize the constitutional framework, renounce violence and cut their links to al Qaida and other terrorist organizations. Not just with fine talk, but verifiably. That is a must; we can make no compromises on that. Ending their links to al Qaida ought to be in the Taliban’s interests as well. If it hadn’t been for the attacks of 11 September and al Qaida’s terrorist activities, no Western troops would have been sent to Afghanistan. I hope the Taliban are coming to realize that it is crucial for them to break with international terrorism.
At a Federal Intelligence Service symposium at the end of October, you yourself said we had to see whether the Taliban are capable of engaging in politics at all.
Exactly. That’s what we must test. The question of whether one can talk at least to part of the Afghan Taliban can only be answered in the talks now slowly beginning in Afghanistan between the Government and the insurgents. The High Peace Council set up in June by an assembly of Afghan tribal leaders provides a tremendous opportunity for understanding between the intra-Afghan parties to the conflict. It is important that all relevant groups are involved in the peace process and that no sections of Afghan society are left out, because we need an inclusive solution.
But the role of Pakistan remains problematic.The secret service ISI supports the Taliban, even though the Government claims to be supporting the fight against terrorism.Moreover, the authorities arrested Taliban leader Mullah Baradar, who seems to be willing to negotiate.How might Pakistan be persuaded to stop playing its double game?
Pakistan will realize that stability in Afghanistan will help the entire region. Pakistan cannot possibly have any interest in chaos either. This is true also of Iran, which has signalled its interest in a stable Afghanistan. While remaining cautious, I do believe a political solution is possible. But it’s a laborious process.