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Soldier with flower in his rifle in Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

After 9/11: Has Germany failed in Afghanistan?

Sandra Petersmann | Nina Werkhäuser
September 11, 2020

After the al-Qaida terrorist network attacked the US on September 11, 2001, Germany backed the US-led military and diplomatic mission in Afghanistan — and still does. Nineteen years on, what has Germany achieved?


Germany's Afghanistan mission began 19 years ago with a statement for the history books: On September 12, 2001, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder emphasized that he had assured the US president of Germany's "unlimited solidarity" in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Indeed, Germany would side with its most important ally in the war on terrorism and shortly thereafter take on responsibility in Afghanistan — a role it still holds today.

The cost of the Afghan intervention

But now US President Donald Trump is losing patience and has started to withdraw American troops. According to calculations by Brown University, the US has so far spent roughly $2 trillion (€1.7 trillion) on the conflict in Afghanistan.

The US commander-in-chief wants to end what has become America's longest war — and that puts pressure on Washington's allies, including Germany. Because if the Americans go, all other NATO partners go, too.

According to the German government, the Afghan intervention had cost German taxpayers around €16.4 billion by the end of 2018. The use of the Bundeswehr — the country's armed forces — alone accounted for €12 billion. Was it worth it?

Progress and regression

On paper, the Afghanistan of today is an Islamic republic with a democratic constitution. Women sit in parliament; girls go to school. There are new streets, hospitals and universities, mobile phone towers, power and water lines. But the country has not found peace.

According to the United Nations, more than 32,000 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks, battles and air strikes in the past 10 years alone, and more than 60,000 were injured. Having been ousted in December 2001, the Taliban are now pushing their way back to power after direct negotiations with US officials. More people leave Afghanistan as refugees and migrants than almost any other country.

DW asked stakeholders and decision-makers to weigh in on the situation in Afghanistan.

Roderich Kiesewetter, member of the German Bundestag
After many years of service in Germany's armed forces, Roderich Kiesewetter became a member of the Bundestag in 2009Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

German MP: Afghan mission had fatal mistakes

Since becoming a member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, in 2009, Roderich Kiesewetter has voted every year to extend the Afghanistan mission. The former military officer is one of the most prominent voices on foreign policy in Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

On September 11, 2001, while still a soldier, Kiesewetter was in Monterey, California, where he was visiting a US military university and was set to celebrate his 38th birthday with friends. That morning, a friend called him before breakfast, saying "Turn on the TV!" He saw how the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. "Then something started that really moved me."

Germany's 'guilty conscience'

Kiesewetter sees the September 11 terrorist attacks as "very closely interwoven with German history." The hijacking of flights and ensuing attacks were planned in the northern city of Hamburg. Mohammed Atta, the head of the terrorist cell, studied at Hamburg University of Technology from 1992 to 2001. Atta piloted the passenger plane that flew straight into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

A "guilty conscience" is an essential reason for the German engagement in Afghanistan, says Kiesewetter, because the German security authorities did not prevent "terrorist attacks of such magnitude from being planned on German soil."

The former Bundeswehr officer is one of the few lawmakers who is not afraid to take stock of the 19-year German diplomatic, political and military mission in Afghanistan. DW has also asked many other politicians to go on record with their assessment of the situation, but none were willing to do so.

Kiesewetter considers it a fatal mistake that the mission was politically glossed over for so long: "We were never there in a peaceful reconstruction mission, and we are not today either." The top military leadership advised the government incorrectly, he says, especially between 2002 and 2009. "That meant that our soldiers were wrongly equipped and had far too restrictive rules of engagement."

Or to put it another way: "We owe the fact that we are now in Afghanistan only to the military and intelligence skills of the Americans. We could not manage the mission there on our own."

The mission currently costs Germany between €800 and 900 million per year. "I think from today's perspective we would not go to Afghanistan again" — Berlin "overreached" in this case, he says. Kiesewetter believes Germany must ensure stability, especially in and around Europe — by which he means Africa and the Middle East.

Read more: Taliban prisoner swap an 'important step'

Aftermath of an explosive attack on the German Embassy in Kabul in 2017
More than 150 people died in an attack on the German Embassy in Kabul on May 31, 2017Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Gul

'We are not a teacher of democracy'

Nevertheless, since 2009 the conservative politician has always voted in favor of extending the Afghanistan intervention. "If I am asked, 'is it worth the price of the many hundreds of thousands of deaths?', then that is a moral consideration that is very difficult. The alternative of not doing it would not have made Afghanistan any better."

Kiesewetter considers a hasty withdrawal of American troops to be morally wrong, "because the United States has invested a tremendous amount" and is also responsible for "a great many casualties among the civilian population."

In his view, it was a mistake to completely exclude the Taliban after their overthrow. Such mistakes "must make us more humble. I think it was the beginning of a new humility in the West."

What does this mean for future interventions? "It is our job to ensure that human rights are observed," emphasizes Kiesewetter. "But it is not our job to be a teacher of democracy if it is not socially accepted."

Afghan human rights activist Freshta Karim
Afghan human rights activist Freshta Karim has built a library on wheels for children in KabulImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Gul

Afghan activist: 'We have to forgive'

Freshta Karim was born into the Afghan civil war in 1992. After the Taliban came to power, her family fled to Pakistan and did not return until they were overthrown. In 2016 Karim received her Masters in Public Policy from Oxford. Today she runs Charmaghz, an aid organization for children.

At home in Kabul the power went out again in the late afternoon. Freshta Karim is moving to one of her favorite cafes. There is a generator and WiFi here. "I've never seriously thought about this idea of leaving even at the most difficult times," she says.

But a few weeks ago the terror got too close. On June 27, her friend Fatima Khalil was brutally killed when a vehicle belonging to the Afghan Human Rights Commission was bombed. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing; only one thing is certain: The attacks on representatives of civil society are on the rise. Karim asked herself: "Is it worth it to remain here? Is it worth it to put your life in such a huge danger?"

'It was absolutely worth it'

The grief paralyzed her. "But then life gets back to normal and you realize, you understand that you have to get up again and keep working." It is a matter of "repairing" Afghanistan "little by little," she says. Was the invasion by the US and its allies justified post-September 11? "I think it was absolutely worth it because here right now, you see millions of free individuals who are equal to the eyes of the law." She says that with a view to the constitution, which enshrines freedom of expression and women's rights. For now.

Karim also considers peace talks with the Taliban to be inevitable, but they instill fear in her. "The entire idea of talking to people who have considered you and everyone of your same gender as unequal, who have killed your friends, who have destroyed your childhood … the entire idea of sitting and talking to them, I think, for me was very uncalled for. I had to really take long walks, talk to myself, talk to my friends, to really let go of this."

What for her is missing is a gesture of reconciliation by the Taliban: "And now we have to sit and talk to them to bring peace — even though they are not even asking for forgiveness. But we have to forgive them because otherwise, how would we just sit and talk to them?"

An Afghan Taliban member after being released from custody in May 2020
This Taliban fighter was released from prison on May 26 in order to pave the way for peace negotiationsImage: picture-alliance/Zuma/PPI

'We also made our own sacrifices'

The Taliban were not allowed to participate in the international Afghanistan conference in Germany at the end of 2001 — something Karim considers a major mistake early on. At that time the Taliban were on the run. Today they again control half of all Afghan districts, or are actively attacking them. "The second mistake that we are making here is trying to escape the situation very quickly," Karim says. "At times it seems that the US wants to leave at whatever cost. And I think that is really scary because we are bringing back a huge vulnerability."

Despite corruption and abuse of power within the government, the 28-year-old clings to democracy and wants Afghanistan's Western allies to be more patient, because she strongly believes two decades is not enough to build a democracy from scratch when the foundations of society have been shattered by decades of war. "We also made our own sacrifices for our country," she says. By "we," she means the entire Afghan population. "And maybe I don't have the luxury of losing hope because this is where I live. This is where I belong to."

Afghanistan: Women’s rights under threat

'I will build robots'

Freshta Karim's charity, Charmaghz, has turned a big blue bus into a rolling library for children. For this she received Germany's prestigious Max Herrmann Prize — the country's most significant prize for libraries. According to the UN, only about 43% of all Afghans over the age of 15 can read and write.

"Always when you ask [the kids], they'll say, 'oh, I will become a doctor, I'll become an engineer. I will make robots.' And that is such a beautiful and positive moment to see all these children with all these beautiful dreams — not even doubting at all their future or the future of this country."

Afghanistan expert Thomas Ruttig (left)
Afghanistan expert and former UN diplomat Thomas Ruttig (left) during a visit to a mosque in Ghasni, southwest of KabulImage: Privat

Ex-diplomat: 'Germany has failed militarily in Afghanistan'

Thomas Ruttig, 63, is an Afghanistan expert and former diplomat. He serves as co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank based in Kabul and Berlin.

When he looks at Afghanistan today, Ruttig sees little light but many shadows. "I am very sad and angry about how it went," he says. Ruttig lived for many years in Afghanistan and speaks both its official languages, ​​Dari and Pashto. In November 2001 while serving as a UN diplomat, he returned to Kabul after a trip — and entered a new era, the Taliban regime having just been overthrown.

"All of a sudden, music was playing in the bazaars, and the old cassette recorders that the Taliban had banned were playing again," he recalls. He saw many men happily hurrying to the barber to have their long beards shaved off.

'It wasn't just about the Taliban'

Nearly two decades on, in his view much has gone wrong in the attempt to instill a new order to the country. Outsiders "didn't listen to the Afghans enough," he says. "They should have organized an institutional framework in which the unarmed and the armed could negotiate how they wanted to develop their state and their society."

The conflicts in the country were not properly understood, he explains. "It was not just about the Taliban. A lot has to do with poverty and with competing ideas: Do we want to become a modern society or not? Is democracy compatible with Islam? These things should have been clarified."

A Bundeswehr soldier offers water to an Afghan man and his child
'The intervention of the West has been totally militarized,' says Afghanistan expert and former UN diplomat Thomas Ruttig Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

He considers it a grave mistake that the mujahideen leaders, who had fought against the Soviet occupation and then engaged in a brutal civil war which brought the Taliban to power, were allowed to regain such influence. "They rearmed themselves with the money they were given and took control of the state."

And Germany? "Diplomatically, Germany initially played a very good role as host of the Bonn Conference at the end of 2001." But that role later dwindled when the progress that had been hoped for did not materialize. Ruttig is critical of the ongoing Bundeswehr deployment: "Germany has failed militarily in Afghanistan," he concludes. After the first attacks, the Bundeswehr "only protected itself instead of the Afghans."

Read more: Afghan former Bundeswehr employees unsafe at home, insecure in Germany

Corruption and self-enrichment

Like the US military, early on German military forces simply appropriated many political tasks and maintained contacts with dubious provincial politicians and warlords. "The Afghans then got the impression that they were under the protection of foreigners." In Ruttig's summation, "the intervention of the West has been totally militarized" while at the same time, a political business elite was bred that was and remains "corrupt to the bone."

The result: rising poverty and social inequality. "Many of the poor Afghans see that their elites do not care about them and are getting rich to an extent that is obscene. They also see that the West is largely responsible for this corruption."

How does the country get out of this misery? Ruttig does not believe "that this much-acclaimed international community can or will contribute much" to changing the status quo. Among lawmakers and politicians in the countries with a current vested interest or military involvement in Afghanistan, this topic is hardly discussed.

"Probably the Afghans have to sort it out among themselves," he says. But if negotiations fail, that could result in a new war.

DW's Sandra Petersmann
Sandra Petersmann Head of Research & Investigations
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