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NATO Envoy Sees Afghan Forces Holding Out Against Taliban Onslaught

An Afghan soldier fires during an ongoing an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar Province on April 11.
An Afghan soldier fires during an ongoing an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar Province on April 11.

German diplomat Cornelius Zimmermann, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, says that after thwarting eight major Taliban attacks on various provincial capitals last year, the Afghan security forces are capable of preventing the insurgents from overrunning major population centers this year.

RFE/RL: At this point, why is Afghanistan important for NATO?

Cornelius Zimmermann: NATO has been in Afghanistan since 2003, and our commitment remains strong and steadfast. At the Warsaw summit last year, we agreed on three decisions. The first was to sustain our Resolute Support mission to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces and institutions beyond 2016. The second was to continue funding the Afghan security forces through 2020, and the third was to strengthen our political partnership and practical cooperation with Afghanistan.

NATO’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan is key to the country’s security but also to our own security. It will ensure Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for international terrorism again.

RFE/RL: U.S. and NATO allies are weighing whether to send thousands of more troops into Afghanistan. Do you know the exact number and when exactly these forces might be sent there?

Zimmermann: Discussions are ongoing among allies and partners on the future scope of Resolute Support. I expect progress will be made in the coming weeks. It’s important to underline that this is not at all returning to a combat mission as ISAF [International Security and Assistance Force].

As [Afghan] President Ashraf Ghani told NATO ambassadors the other day, this is about continuing to support Afghanistan’s path to reform. And it’s critical that the mission be properly resourced so we can further train, advise, and assist the Afghan security forces.

Training the air force and special forces is particularly important so they can effectively stabilize the country and fight the insurgency. This is in line with the government roadmap. But at the end of the day, only a negotiated political solution can bring an end to the violence.

RFE/RL: The Taliban are gaining momentum in Afghanistan. In late April, they launched their spring offensive, Operation Mansuri. Do you think the deployment of additional troops could break the insurgents’ momentum?

Zimmermann: The security situation is challenging. But the Afghan security forces have shown that they can defend their people with determination and courage. They control the majority of Afghan territory and provide security for two-thirds of the Afghan population.

Last year, the security forces prevented eight major attempts to seize provincial capitals. And they continue to prevent the Taliban from achieving their stated objectives. Last week, for instance, Afghan security forces retook the district of Qala-e Zal in the northern province of Kunduz. I think further assistance provided by Resolute Support will certainly have a positive impact on the security forces’ ability to stabilize the country.

RFE/RL: U.S. generals have already expressed concern over Russia's support for the Afghan Taliban. What kind of evidence is there about its direct links to the insurgents -- training, helicopter trips, weapons?

Zimmermann: I cannot comment on intelligence matters but I do encourage all regional players to play a constructive role. So, all outside actors should help the Afghan national unity government and not undermine it. This would be the best way to bring stability to Afghanistan, to fight terrorism and support the unity of the country.

German diplomat Cornelius Zimmermann is NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.
German diplomat Cornelius Zimmermann is NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.

​We must convey to all countries in the region that a stable Afghanistan is in their own interest as it will contribute to regional stability and thereby their own stability. This will be the key message of the Kabul conference hosted by Ghani on June 6.

RFE/RL: Regarding peace efforts, do you think Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizb-e Islami, can be a catalyst for peace? Could his return encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table?

Zimmermann: First of all, I would like to commend the Afghan government for reaching an important peace agreement with Hizb-e Islami, and I welcome the government’s continued steps toward the full implementation of this peace agreement. This is a positive indication of the government’s commitment to the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The agreement can be a model for future negotiations with other armed groups. However, both sides must abide by it, and if successfully implemented the agreement between the Afghan government and Hizb-e Islami could incentivize the Taliban and other insurgents to join the negotiating table.

NATO continues to support an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan owned peace and reconciliation process in which armed groups cease violence, break ties with international terrorist groups, and respect the Afghan Constitution and human rights.

RFE/RL: What is your message to the leaders of the Afghan government?

Zimmermann: At the Warsaw summit last year, NATO allies and partners committed to continue supporting Afghanistan. And the Afghan government made important commitments about reforms and good governance. I welcome the continued efforts by President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to pursue essential reforms and strengthen political cohesion. There has been progress.

I agree with Ghani, who said ending corruption is critical for peace in Afghanistan. In that regard, the Afghan authorities have made some encouraging headway. The key institution is the anti-corruption justice center set up last November that has prosecuted several major cases already.

However, there’s no question much more needs to be done. And I encourage the government to maintain this momentum.

I would also encourage Afghan leaders to step up efforts to hold long overdue parliamentary and district council elections. The Afghan people must be able to rely on government institutions. And the Afghan security forces must remain fully focused on delivering security and improving their own military capabilities.

Correction: This piece was corrected to reflect that the Afghan forces defended some provincial capitals from eight major Taliban attacks last year. They didn't defend eight provincial capitals. Corrections were also made throughout the interview transcript.