Hikmet Çetin is NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan and as such is the political face of the Alliance on the ground. He was appointed in November 2003 and has been based in Kabul since January 2004.
An economist by training, Mr Çetin moved to Afghanistan after a long and distinguished political career in Turkey. In the course of more than a quarter of a century in parliament, Mr Çetin held a number of high offices, including those of foreign minister, deputy prime minister and speaker of the parliament.
NATO Review: What role do you play as NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan and how do you interact with the ISAF commander?
Hikmet Çetin: I represent NATO in Afghanistan and my task is to carry forward the Alliance’s political and military agenda. My mandate also includes maintaining close links with the other international organisations, notably the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and liaising with the government of Afghanistan, other political actors, and, if needed, with neighbouring countries. To date, I have worked with six different ISAF commanders and it has been a pleasure to work with every one of them. Our positions are complementary and we meet up regularly to brief and/or consult with one another. Since we work out of the same building, this physical proximity contributes to good communication and coordination.
NR: How important is it for NATO to play a political role in crisis regions in which Alliance forces are deployed?
HÇ: I believe it is extremely important. Success in crisis-management operations cannot be achieved by military means alone. The only way to manage conflict effectively and build lasting solutions is to adopt a comprehensive, multifaceted approach that mobilises all possible tools, including, in particular, a political dimension. This is especially the case in Afghanistan, where one of our goals is to help the government extend its authority to the whole country. Indeed, we are currently working to help re-establish institutions that have not functioned for the past three decades.
Many other political activities also contribute to building lasting solutions. The development of relations with neighbouring countries, for example, requires political engagement and is critical both to the success of the NATO mission and Afghanistan’s future. Moreover, the longer the military operation continues, the more important the political process becomes. As Afghans increasingly take ownership of the process, the Alliance’s political role will grow.
NR: How do the Afghans view the foreign military presence in their country and how welcome do you feel?
HÇ: Historically, Afghans have resented and fought against the various foreign militaries that have sought to occupy their country. They are, however, aware that NATO is in Afghanistan on the invitation of the Afghan government to assist them rebuild their country. We are not here to occupy their country. We have no intention of trying to govern Afghanistan. And we have a mandate from the UN Security Council to be here. NATO/ISAF has worked hard to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans and has, for the most part, been successful in this.
In all my contacts with Afghans, whether ordinary people, political leaders or government officials, I seek to explain why we are here, what we are doing and how we can help. I also ask Afghans to help the military so that the military will in turn be able to assist them. Moreover, I greatly appreciate the support of the Afghan people. They have done everything that the international community has asked of them.
NR: What are the greatest security challenges facing Afghanistan today?
HÇ: In Afghanistan, significant progress has been made in the security field in recent years. However, serious challenges remain. Today we are facing a widening insurgency, especially in southern and eastern parts of the country. Moreover, the insurgents are changing tactics. The Taliban and other opposing military forces are focusing their attacks on “soft” targets to maximise media attention at minimal cost. In addition to attacking the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, they are targeting civilians and civilian objects, such as teachers and schools. The insurgents are also increasingly working with drug traffickers and criminal groups. The Taliban are, for example, forcing farmers to grow poppies to produce opium and taking a cut from the harvest in return for providing protection.
Another key challenge is that of ensuring border security. This is because Afghanistan has extremely long borders, including some 2500 kilometres with Pakistan and another 1000 kilometres or so with Iran. The only way to achieve border security is to ensure that counter-insurgency operations are coordinated on both sides of the border in, say, both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since all countries in the region face similar threats, it will be important for all of them and ISAF/NATO to work together to develop common responses.
NR: How do you assess the prospects for state-building in Afghanistan after completion of the Bonn process?
HÇ: The four-and-a-half years that have elapsed since Afghanistan’s factions came together in Bonn in December 2001 to launch the Bonn process is a very short period in the life of a country. Nevertheless, there have been great achievements in this time, especially in the field of state-building. Back in 2001, Afghanistan had no president, no government, no parliament and no constitution. Today, Afghans have a president who was for the first time elected in a popular vote. They also have a constitution, an elected parliament and a functioning government.
As the Bonn process came to an end, a conference took place in London to set the agenda for Afghanistan for the next five years. At the London Conference, a document called the Afghanistan Compact was signed between the Afghan government and the international community. The 60-odd countries and international organisations that were present renewed their commitment to Afghanistan and pledged a further $10.5 billion for the country’s reconstruction. This is a large and generous sum. However, because of the scale of Afghanistan’s needs, it is not sufficient. We will have to try and make this aid as effective as possible because it will not be possible to achieve peace, stability and security in the absence of economic and social development. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and will continue to require international financial support for many years.
NR: How can ISAF and NATO best contribute to Afghanistan’s stabilisation?
HÇ: ISAF and NATO are working to bring security and stability to Afghanistan. This policy is based on the gradual expansion of the Afghan government’s authority to the whole country. We need to help convince ordinary Afghans that it is in their long-term interest to support the government instead of the insurgents. To do this, we have to help provide basic security for the population because only when ordinary Afghans feel secure will they have the confidence to demonstrate their allegiance to Kabul.
NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is extremely challenging. We need to focus both our military resources and our financial assistance to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Unless we win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, we will not succeed in stabilising the country. The importance of having the sympathy and support of Afghans is critical to the success of ISAF’s mission and cannot be exaggerated. Moreover, I am proud to see that nations are providing the necessary training to their troops to help them interact effectively with the Afghan people. However, to be truly effective, the military operation needs to be coordinated with the international community’s reconstruction effort.
Looking ahead, the development of Afghan security forces will be crucial to the country’s stability. We have to understand, however, that it is not possible to produce well-trained and effective soldiers and police overnight. To date, efforts to recruit volunteers for the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police have been successful in quantitative terms. However, the issue is quality, not quantity. For this, more time, more training and more equipment are required. Our long-term goal is to build security forces that are able to stand on their own feet and take responsibility for addressing their country’s security needs.
NR: To what extent should NATO support counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan?
HÇ: The counter-narcotics issue is arguably the most important challenge facing Afghanistan. Unless we can find a solution for this, we cannot hope to fix the wider security situation in Afghanistan. At the same time, however, this is an extremely complex issue whose dimensions go beyond security to the heart of the country’s economy. Since poppy cultivation provides many poor Afghan farmers with their livelihood, we have to address this issue very carefully.
As far as international efforts to combat the drug threat are concerned, the United Kingdom is the lead nation. That said, ISAF/NATO and individual NATO Allies will not be conducting eradication operations, since counter-narcotics efforts are the responsibility of the Afghan authorities. As a result, we can only provide assistance. Indeed, support to the Afghan government’s counter-narcotics efforts forms part of ISAF’s mandate. We have been helping develop command and control procedures for effective liaison coordination; we are supporting the counter-narcotics information campaign; and we have been training Afghan security forces in counter-narcotics-related activities. We also provide logistical support to various international counter-narcotics agencies. And we support the Afghan government’s counter-narcotics operations with intelligence and surveillance capabilities. Ultimately, we hope to help build Afghan security forces able to run these programmes without external assistance.
Since the economic dimension of Afghanistan’s drug problem is so important, it is also important to help provide Afghan farmers with an alternative livelihood. For this reason, NATO Allies must be prepared to support Afghanistan financially and to invest in programmes that make this possible.
NR: Some non-governmental organisations have criticised the concept of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) for blurring the distinction between civilian and military activities. To what extent should soldiers become involved in reconstruction?
HÇ: The PRT concept has been designed to include both military and civilian elements in such a way as to maximise the efforts of the international community and address the needs of the provinces in which PRTs are established. Success in Afghanistan will only be achieved if military and civilian actors work effectively together. However, conditions are different in each of Afghanistan’s provinces and the balance between military and civilian elements in PRTs must correspond to local needs.
In some provinces, the security situation is such that PRTs must focus on security, with the result that the military component is greater. In Helmand province in the south of the country, for example, the security situation is comparatively precarious, with the result that the military component is greater than its civilian counterpart.
Although conditions might differ, the ultimate aim in all provinces is the same, namely to ensure stable conditions in which Kabul can extend its authority and reconstruction can take place. Since we are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people, expectations among ordinary Afghans for reconstruction aid – the work of the civilian component of PRTs – are enormous. The civilian components of PRTs are working together with all tiers of government, including provincial councils, to identify projects to assist Afghan reconstruction.
NR: How is ISAF’s expansion into the south of Afghanistan progressing?
What are the main challenges you’re facing?
HÇ: The expansion to southern Afghanistan is probably the most challenging ground operation NATO has undertaken. Preparations are underway and expansion will take place this summer. NATO Allies are already deploying forces to the south of Afghanistan. The countries involved are preparing for the transfer of authority and working together with departing authorities to ensure a smooth transition.
Since the structure and the capabilities are not the same, some adjustments will be needed. NATO is bringing in more troops to the south. Therefore, the NATO presence will be more visible in the south. ISAF/NATO will take the command and control in the south by the end of July and the preparations are going on and there is good cooperation with NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom on the ground.
The insurgents have been trying to test NATO’s resolve and to discourage troop-contributing Allies from deploying forces. They seem to believe that they can achieve this with carefully targeted attacks because we are democracies. Indeed, Allies are discussing these very issues in our parliaments and public opinion is very interested. However, NATO is committed to assisting Afghanistan and has made clear that ISAF is the number one priority on the Alliance’s agenda.
Everyone is aware that NATO will be confronted with difficult situations and will, if necessary, have to use force in the south of the country. However, nothing will deter NATO. The Alliance’s resolve is strong and troop-contributing nations are deploying forces in the south without imposing virtually any restrictions or caveats on the way in which they operate. NATO is more determined than ever to do whatever is needed in the south.
NR: Despite ISAF’s expansion and growing synergy between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, the two remain distinctive missions. How should this relationship evolve?
HÇ: There is already excellent synergy between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom and this should get even better as ISAF expands. Once ISAF’s expansion has taken place, both missions will come under a single NATO commander. In this way, there will still be two organisations, with two different and distinct missions, operating in the same theatre of operations. While this may sound strange, it is not unusual in military terms. Although the mandates of the two operations would remain different, there will be a gradual merging of some functions, which should help further improve synergy and make both more effective.
NR: NATO and Afghanistan are currently developing a special cooperation programme. What is the rationale behind it and what is involved in it?
HÇ: In September 2005, Afghan President Hamid Karzai wrote to the NATO Secretary General asking for a “good strategic partnership with NATO”. This is because NATO is important to Afghanistan and Afghanistan is important to NATO. Since the Alliance already has a series of partnership programmes, including the Partnership for Peace, the NATO-Russia Council, the NATO-Ukraine Commission, the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, many tools that have already been developed may be useful for a partnership with Afghanistan.
The content of the programme is still under discussion. However, Afghanistan is clearly looking for a long-term relationship with NATO, to develop interoperability between Afghan and NATO forces and to enable Afghan military personnel to make use of NATO training centres. Afghanistan wishes to ensure that it is not abandoned by the international community. Although all 26 NATO Allies need to agree on the nature of the partnership, I’m confident that we will be able to come to an agreement that is in the interest of both Afghanistan and NATO.