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Afghanistan: Why the German withdrawal failed

October 14, 2022

The triumph of Islamists in Afghanistan surprised many experts. At the Bundestag's investigative committee, German diplomat Gregory Bledjian has described the failures at the end of the Afghanistan mission.

The interior of a transport aircraft filled with civilians, with German soldiers standing guard
The Bundeswehr struggled to evacuate people from AfghanistanImage: Marc Tessensohn/bundeswehr/AA/picture alliance

A top German diplomat has described a lack of foresight in the run-up to the country's chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

The botched retreat left many Afghans who helped the German mission stranded under the Taliban regime. Many are still in hiding, fearing for their lives. 

Gregory Bledjian, a former Foreign Ministry envoy in Kabul, told a parliamentary inquiry on Thursday that the chaos could have been predicted, as everyone was aware that the peace process was structurally flawed. The biggest problem, though, was "that fighting continued during the negotiations."

Bledjian tenure ended a year before the Taliban seized power in mid-June 2021, so he only saw the hasty withdrawal of the Bundeswehr and the evacuation of the German Embassy from a distance, but he had seen preparations for the withdrawal being made.

Security fears

Civil society in particular was very skeptical, he said: "Every conversation I had started with the security situation."

The Americans had promised to fly out embassy staff and local forces with two large cargo planes if necessary. When the Taliban captured Kabul unexpectedly quickly, events came to a head.

Thousands of people who had been working with the international forces and civilian aid organizations feared that the Taliban would take revenge. But it became apparent that no one was prepared to fly them all out.

"Our security concept never factored in 10,000 people arriving at the airport in chaotic conditions," Bledjian told the investigative committee.

He summed up the Taliban's tactics this way: "Their strategy was to talk and shoot." And in the end, it worked for them.

Germany's traumatized Afghanistan veterans

'The security situation steadily deteriorated'

"I didn't think it would happen so quickly," the diplomat said of the Taliban's takeover, a sentiment that has been echoed by the experts and other witnesses who have been questioned in the parliamentary inquiry sessions so far.

The experienced diplomat told the committee that he had requested a crisis advisory team from Berlin as early as the end of 2020 to discuss security issues. That team arrived in March 2021, he said.

Given the troop withdrawal agreed by the US and the Taliban in the so-called Doha Agreement, he said, there had been "very fundamental concerns and thinking about how we would replace these capabilities."

In other words: Who would then provide protection for the embassy and civilian organizations?

'A fait accompli'

Evacuation plans for embassy staff and local personnel had been "ready in the drawer" at the end of his tenure in the Afghan capital, Bledjian said. But at that time, no decision had yet been made about an evacuation.

Despite skepticism, the German Embassy had assumed that its diplomatic and developmental engagement in Afghanistan would continue even after the withdrawal of international troops.

It was a fatal miscalculation as would soon become clear.

Bledjian said he had always been critical of the agreement between the US and the Taliban.

"It was a deal at the expense of third parties," the 49-year-old said, because the Afghan government and its allies were not involved. "We were presented with a fait accompli."

This article was originally written in German.

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