Suspicion rises between Western advisers, Afghans
Kabul: "Shoulder to shoulder" is the mantra of
the NATO-Afghan military partnership. Now, after Afghan
soldiers and police turned their guns on their foreign
partners during outrage over the Quran burnings, even Western
advisers not just combat troops are looking over their
The deepening distrust is jeopardising the US-led
coalition's strategy of training Afghan security forces and
helping government workers so that international troops can go
The advisers do a variety of jobs. While some focus on
the battlefield, others pore over geological surveys, lure
outside investors or make sure that key mountain passes are
clear of snow.
They work closely with their Afghan counterparts to build
a government strong enough to fend off threats and attacks
from the Taliban and other militants trying to destabilise
There has been lingering distrust for years. Afghan
soldiers and police, or militants dressed in their uniforms,
have shot and killed more than 75 US and other coalition
forces in Afghanistan since 2007.
But tensions soared Feb 25 when two US military advisers
were found dead with gunshots to the back of the head inside
the Afghan Ministry of Interior, one of the most heavily
guarded buildings in the capital, Kabul.
The two were among six US troops killed by Afghan
security forces during a week of demonstrations over the
burning of Islamic books and Qurans at a US military base in
President Barack Obama and US military officials say the
burnings were a mistake and not intentional.
Hours after the military advisers' bodies were found on
the floor of their office, Gen John Allen, the top commander
of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, took the unprecedented
step of recalling hundreds of coalition personnel working in
more than two dozen government ministries in Kabul.
He said the decision was made "for obvious force
protection reasons." Britain, France, Germany and Canada
quickly followed suit, putting much of the West's mentoring
and advising work on hold.
"It's a declining relationship. It has been for years,"
said Martine van Bijlert, co-founder of the Afghan Analyst
Network in Kabul. "You won't be able to fix that. The big
question is 'Will it remain a workable relationship?' I think
it's possible. It could settle down, but it won't fully settle
down to the old level."
"These advisers are crucial, especially in the security
sector when we're talking about transition," said Haroun Mir,
director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy
Studies in Kabul.
"Certainly the Afghan government can function without
them, but if they don't return, it will take a toll on the
financial situation of the government. Many of these projects
financed by donors require the presence of these advisers."
Allen is determined to get the advisers back into the
ministries as soon as possible when he deems it is safe enough
to do so, said US Army Lt Col Jimmie Cummings, a coalition
spokesman. The coalition has not disclosed the total number of
advisers who work in the ministries.
Their work has not completely stopped, he said.
"Though they are not physically standing beside them, the
advisers are still in daily communication with their Afghan
counterparts, as Gen Allen directed to keep the lines of
communication open," Cummings said.
"We are committed to our partnership with the government
of Afghanistan.... Tens of thousands of Afghan and coalition
troops continue to effectively work together on significant
missions every day."
A few dozen advisers critical to the mission have
trickled back to work, but with additional security, Cummings
A senior Western adviser who oversees advisers in several
ministries said that when they go back they probably will be
required to wear body armour and travel in groups with armed
The adviser said they also might have to get permission
to visit the ministries, reducing day-to-day contact with
their Afghan partners.
Some advisers, such as the ones involved in the
Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program, will balk at increased
security, the adviser said.
The US established the programme in September 2009 to
create a team of military and civilian experts who could
develop close working relationships with their Afghan and
Contractors who serve as advisers generally are not so
eager to rush back to the ministries, and some told the
adviser they are ready to head home.
The adviser and all others who spoke on condition of
anonymity for this article did so because of increasing
tensions in the NATO-Afghan relationship.
Restoring trust between Western advisers and their Afghan
counterparts will be challenging.
"If an adviser gets killed and you're an adviser, it's
going to be difficult," said Nadia Gerspacher, a senior
program adviser for the United States Institute of Peace in