German authorities announced on Friday, the third day of the Quran burning protests, that they have closed their ISAF base in Taloqan several weeks earlier than planned in response to the protests. Originally, the base had been slated for closure in March. This decision shows the limitations of the assumed international control of particular areas in Afghanistan, especially through the presence of international forces, raises questions on the overall security transition process, says our guest blogger Marcel Häßler*.
The tactical decision to pull out the troops from the German Provincial Advisory Team (PAT) in Taloqan** in north-eastern Afghanistan earlier than planned in order to avoid any further escalation after the anti-Quran burning protests makes sense only in the short run. Mainly, it raises questions on the overall security transition process in northern Afghanistan. While international actors locked themselves up in fortified compounds in all major Afghan towns in response to the protests, it is left to the Afghan security forces to handle the situation.
As a matter of fact, after the security transition in Takhar province earlier this month the PAT in Taloqan was about to close down despite the deteriorating security situation. The attack in the governor’s palace in May 2011, when several high-ranking officials were killed***, has made it clear at the latest that Takhar province was not longer calm and stable. Among the six killed in this attack were the police commander for northern Afghanistan General Daud Daud, provincial police chief Shah Jahan Nuri as well as two German soldiers while General Markus Kneip, Commander of ISAF’s Regional Command North, and Takhar governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa were wounded. The last prominent assassination victim in Takhar was Mutaleb Beg in December 2011, a prominent former mujahedin commander and member of Afghan parliament.
Given the historical role of Takhar province during the war between the Taleban and what is usually known as the Northern Alliance as well as its strategic location between Kunduz and Badakhshan, the security situation in Takhar also influences that of these two neighbouring provinces, and in particular Kunduz where the German PRT will stay longest. Traditionally, one of the main northwards drug routes out of Afghanistan and the trade of weapons cross the province. The economical and infrastructural overall situation of the approximately one million inhabitants is even worse than in Kunduz. Even more important is its ethnic heterogeneity, resulting in an ongoing internal struggle among the former Northern Alliance parties, the penetration of extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and criminality, resulting from the lack of legal employment opportunities, is threatening the reconstruction efforts of the international community.
The presence of a small contingent of ISAF troops in Taloqan city, which never had full situational awareness on all of Takhar (especially not of the remote northern Rustaq, Chah Ab and Darqad districts and southeastern mountain areas of Chal, Namak Ab and Warsaj districts) was no guarantee for absolute stability. However, by using this strategic base, ISAF was able collect information to directly engage with the local population and to link up with the provincial administration. The resulting situational awareness as a form of protection for civilian actors of the mission as well as the maintenance of an early warning system for governmental and non-governmental organisations might not be visible at first glance.
Whatsoever, if the basic security requirements for the PAT itself could not be fulfilled because of a lack of reliable information, it seems unlikely that it would have been able to protect civil reconstruction by western aid organizations. The security concerns mentioned now by German officials in order to explain the actual withdrawal are the same that would have prevented them from intervening in any case of emergency in Taloqan while still there. This means that in a crisis situation, development actors outside the camp could not have counted on PAT protection. Now, as a consequence of the security transition in the province, the Afghan security forces are supposed to take over the protection of the local reconstruction efforts anyway. But the question is whether they are able and willing to do so.
As far as it could be foreseen right now, there also has to be a political and practical strategy to handle such kind of protests as the current ones, especially when looking forward to 2014 and the withdrawal of combat troops. Ironically, the PAT Taloqan, despite all his security disadvantages, met the new strategy of the international community – with its emphasis on training and more civilian work – far better than the fortress-like PRT Kunduz: with small teams of trainers and aid officials, protected by limited numbers of troops and embedded in the local community. But they would be at the same risk as the PAT personnel was just recently. In fact this means that basic assumptions of the concept should be rethought to find security solutions apart from striving for military supremacy.
There is no need to comment further on the event that triggered the actual protests, resulting in violent outbursts at many places. It is quite clear why many Afghans are furious and use the protest as a vehicle to express their anger on a whole series of social injustices. The risk that such events are hijacked by radical or even criminal groups means that situational awareness is invaluable. Following the international plan to minimize the size of their forces in Afghanistan, there has to be a strategy to address massive and partly violent protests. This should not be left to the Afghan security forces alone. This also includes the backing of institutions that are able to mediate between the population and foreign organizations. The symbolic consequences of hiding behind the high walls of the fortified camps when confronted with massive protests are water on the mills of the Taleban propaganda. As mentioned by many Afghan and Western observers, the actual protests are not only rooted in the burning of the Quran. They show a deep distrust by a broad range in Afghan society that the international community and the Afghan government are able to improve their economic, social and security situation.
While it was the right decision to move out a force like the one in Taloqan unsuitable to confront a crowd peacefully, the overall decision to give up the only hub at place like Taloqan as well as its staffing should be reconsidered. Hiding at the plateau within the PRT Kunduz fortress will result in losing the contact with the Afghan population in the long run. And the next retreat could be from Kunduz to Mazar-e Sharif.
Read a commentary about the retreat from Taloqan (in German) by AAN’s Thomas Ruttig here.
* Marcel Häßler holds a diploma in political science and a MA in criminology. As a former intelligence officer of the German Army (Bundeswehr), he has a long working experience in Kunduz and Takhar provinces.
** The PAT is a kind of sub-PRT. The one in Takhar was established to fill the ISAF presence gap in Takhar province.
*** It has never been fully established how this attack was carried out: The Afghan NDS claims that a bomb was detonated by remote control, however there are indications that a suicide bomber was involved. The perpetrators were also never convincingly established. Read an earlier AAN blog on the incident here.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020