Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

NATO decides Afghan ministries too dangerous for its personnel

After what appears to be the latest murder of US personnel by Afghan security services, NATO pulled its people out of Afghan ministries.

After 10 years of war, NATO has decided that the Afghan ministries it funds, and whose guards it has trained and armed, are too dangerous for its personnel. 

That decision followed the murders of two American officers by what appears to have been an Afghan policemen in the Interior Ministry in Kabul. Afghan officials say the killer was probably enraged by the burning of Qurans by US troops at Bagram Air Base, an event that has led to angry mobs besieging NATO and UN compounds across the country. At least 20 Afghans have been killed in the rioting so far. 

The Quran burning also inspired an Afghan soldier to murder two US troops and wound four others on Thursday.

Gen.John Allen, the US commander of NATO forces inf Afghanistan, ordered all advisers withdrawn from Afghan ministries in response to the killings at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Afghan police.

"For obvious force protection reasons, I have also taken immediate measures to recall all other ISAF personnel working in ministries in and around Kabul," General Allen said in statement. "We are committed to our partnership with the Government of Afghanistan to reach our common goal of a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan in the near future."

US troops will probably soon be back in Afghan ministries, though count on new force protection protocols (US troops providing protection might be a place to start). But in the past few years the NATO effort has been intensely focused on training Afghan soldiers and police.

Rates of desertion, illiteracy, and drug abuse remain stubbornly high. And so-called green on blue incidents, the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) preferred term for Afghan troops murdering NATO troops, have also become increasingly common. It hasn't felt very peaceful, stable, and secure. 

The BBC reports that rioters in the northeastern city of Kunduz, about 300 miles from Kabul, set parts of the UN compound there on fire, as well as other buildings in the city. The situation for foreigners in Afghanistan is now extremely tense, with many in Kabul wondering if they should consider evacuating the city.

That the Quran burning would lead to this was sadly predictable.

The public fury unleashed by events is also a reminder that Afghans are chafing at the extended military occupation of the country. And now Mr. Allen has been forced to concede with his orders today that agents of the Afghan government, NATO's local ally in its war against the Taliban, can't be trusted.

The simple fact is that after 10 years of war, hearts and minds have not been won. Legions of civilian and military advisers from Europe and the US, seeking to inculcate an outside political culture in the hearts of Afghans, have largely failed. The tinder of anger and humiliation is thick on the ground. And this is not just about Taliban supporters.

In my one brief trip to Afghanistan over a year ago, I met plenty of Afghans with no love for the Taliban who spoke of their distaste for the foreign presence. Their culture is not our culture. They do not want it to be.

Of course, nothing like Gen. William George Keith Elphinstone's disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842, when a column of camp-followers, British officers and Indian soldiers numbering some 16,500 were harried by Afghan fighters for over a week before being massacred at Gandamak pass (only one man from the original column made it to safety), is in the offing. NATO troops are too well armed and equipped to be driven out of Kabul, or any other major bases in the country.

But now, just as 150 years ago, Afghans in general have little love for the foreigners in their midst. Given that, outbursts like those of the past week, while containable, can happen from time to time. NATO will try to put the best face on the situation, as it has been trying to do for years, but the US and its partners have much to consider in the weeks ahead.

President Obama is seeking to negotiate an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (who currently holds power thanks to a fraud-marred election) on the US role in the country beyond 2014, when a troop pullout is currently scheduled. So far, those talks have gone nowhere. In May, Mr. Obama will host a NATO meeting on Afghanistan in which he's expected to be more precise about the size and pace of troop reductions in the country. Obama doubled down on the Afghan war with a troop surge soon after he took office, though not as big or open-ended as generals had been pushing for.

The US president now has European allies tired of the war and grappling with economic crisis at home. With the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last May, the US public's appetite for the Afghan war has also diminished. A CNN poll in October found domestic support for the war at its lowest point since it started in 2001, down to 34 percent. Over 1,900 US soldiers have now been killed in the Afghan war.

It bears repeating: The two latest US casualties were in the heart of the Afghan Interior ministry, killed by an Afghan whose gun and ammunition were paid for by the US taxpayer.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.