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Afghanistan: Debacle for Germany's intelligence services

August 19, 2021

It appears that Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, failed to anticipate the breathtaking speed with which the Taliban would sweep across Afghanistan and capture Kabul. What went wrong?

Taliban fighter patrol in Kundus
After the Taliban takeover, German intelligence services are facing allegations of gross incompetence.Image: Sidiqullah Khan/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, is Germany's key foreign intelligence agency. It is tasked with collecting, collating and evaluating information, and with providing the government with an early warning system on critical developments in the fields of foreign and security policy.

Now the BND's image has been seriously tarnished, both at home and abroad, by its failure to alert the German government of the impending disaster in Afghanistan.

This has in turn put the government itself under massive pressure to explain how such a fiasco was possible. As recently as June, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the German parliament, the Bundestag, that it was inconceivable "that the Taliban would, within just a few weeks, be able to seize power."

The German government gets regular reports from the BND as well as from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Military Counterintelligence Service on the overall security situation. These bulletins are of huge significance for Bundeswehr forces deployed abroad and for German embassy staff and ancillary personnel from the local population.

BND office building with monolith artpiece by the entrance
The BND moved into its new central office in the center of Berlin in 2018Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The possibility that so many people employed in Germany's interest in Afghanistan were to find themselves in such acute danger as the withdrawal of international forces began, was apparently overlooked by the intelligence gatherers.

"There is nothing to gloss over," admitted Heiko Maas this week. The Social Democrat foreign minister and Chancellor Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats will certainly face some very serious questioning in the days and weeks to come. The same goes for the BND.

Relying on information from US sources

Social Democrat Uli Grötsch is a member of the Parliamentary Oversight Panel — the Bundestag committee responsible for monitoring the activities of the intelligence agencies: "The government, the intelligence services, and our international partners," he says, "misjudged the situation as it developed when the troop withdrawal began."

Grötsch wonders whether it was not possible to predict the escalation and the Taliban's rapid seizure of power.

Uli Grötsch speaking in parliament
SPD Bundestag member Uli Grötsch asks why the BND misjudged the situation so severelyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

Former BND intelligence officer Gerhard Conrad had an answer to that question when he appeared on Germany's public broadcaster ARD shortly after the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Intelligence services, he said, must have a strong presence on the ground. Which was, he argued, apparently not the case in Afghanistan. When one side gets the feeling that it can "go on a victory march," then that is precisely what it will do: "At least, that is what you have to expect," he said.

So, it looks very much as if Conrad's former employer failed to pick up on what was really bubbling under the surface in Afghanistan.

Andre Hahn of the socialist Left Party is, like Grötsch, a member of the Parliamentary Oversight Panel. Speaking to DW, he accused the intelligence agencies of gross negligence. "The people at the BND appeared to have relied entirely on information from US sources," he said.

And once the American withdrawal began, what intelligence there had been dried up. An angry Andre Hahn asks: "What do you have an intelligence service for?"

Andre Hahn campaigning for his party in Saxony in 2009
Left Party MP Andre Hahn asks why Germany needs an intelligence service if it has to rely solely on US sourcesImage: AP

However, Jan Koehler, Afghanistan researcher with the SOAS University of London, and a regular advisor to the Bundestag's Committee on Foreign Affairs, emphasizes that "both locally-based organizations with big networks of contacts and development agencies working in the region for decades were surprised and overwhelmed by the speed of the Taliban advance."

Black and white photo of Afghanistan researcher Jan Koehler
Jan Koehler says developments were not impossible to predictImage: privat

Nevertheless, Koehler, who has been a frequent visitor to Afghanistan since 2003, has his own explanation for what he calls the "sudden regime death" of the government led by President Ashraf Ghani, who has now fled Afghanistan. He says thata lack of trust among the Afghan security forces in their own government led them to lay down their arms. It was a development that was not in itself impossible to predict. But the sheer speed of events was, Koehler adds, "incredibly dramatic."

"Afghans do not fight for losers," says Koehler.

All this he sees as linked to the negative image that so many people had of the central government in Kabul. People did not believe that they would be capable of, "winning this war for the future of state and government in Afghanistan without international military backing, especially from the Americans."

Afghans abroad worry for relatives

German government and military had no say

"I really don't think that either the German government or the German military have got very much room for maneuver," argues Koehler. Especially given that Washington has already made up its mind. He points to the notorious decision by former US President Donald Trump to completely sideline the Afghan government and negotiate directly with the Taliban over a possible withdrawal. "The Taliban certainly saw that initiative as a form of capitulation," says the Afghanistan expert.

Then the withdrawal plans were simply accelerated by Trump's successor, Joe Biden. And Koehler is convinced that no US allies, including Germany, had any say in the decision-making process. "So, the speed of the operation had been set."

What does it mean for the outgoing chancellor?

For the intelligence community and the chancellor's office, where ultimate responsibility lies, the blame game has only just begun. And it will certainly cast a big shadow over the crucial national election at the end of September.

Whichever government replaces the current coalition led by Angela Merkel will likely face a Herculean task to clear up who got what wrong — possibly involving a full parliamentary investigation. If that is the scenario, Angela Merkel might be faced with the unsavory prospect of giving evidence to a parliamentary committee even after she has left office.

After all, it might have been close to the end of her long term in the chancellory that the intelligence debacle had such a devastating impact in Afghanistan. There is no denying that this historic failure took place on her watch.

This article has been translated from German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.