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German Defense Ministry begins review of Afghanistan mission

October 6, 2021

The Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan ended on June 30. It has already been labeled a failure in the German media. Now, the Defense Ministry's review is off to a bumpy start.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaking in front of German and NATO flags
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer kicked off the review processImage: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

Fifty-nine Bundeswehr soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan, and many more were injured or traumatized. At the end of the 20-year mission in Afghanistan, which cost Germany €17.3 billion ($20 billion), there was a hasty withdrawal, followed by the almost-as-quick takeover by the Taliban.

Many in Germany have asked whether it was worth it. Answers to this and similar questions were to be provided Wednesday at a 4.5-hour debate hosted by Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The event was intended as a starting point for a wider debate.

Several officials refused to attend, saying they felt that it was not right to start such an important debate just days after a federal election, before the new Bundestag had convened and while exploratory talks to form a government were still ongoing. Even Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) canceled. According to media reports, he felt that an event without broad backing from parliament, which must mandate all Bundeswehr foreign missions, made no sense.

'Honest, open ... painful'

Whether by video or in person, members of parliament, representatives of the Bundeswehr, journalists and defense experts took part in the conference. In her welcoming speech, Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared undeterred by the cancellations. She said it was important to start the debate before next week's grand ceremony to honor the servicemen and women who had been deployed to Afghanistan.

Kramp-Karrenbauer said she had wanted to address any suspicion that she intended to avoid an honest discussion. "Afghanistan has changed the political and social debates in this country," she said. The Bundeswehr, she added, had undergone a fundamental change in the 20 years since the mission started and soldiers deserve an "honest, open and also painful debate." 

Heiko Maas attending a virual G20 foreign ministers meeting on Afghanistan in September
Foreign Minister Maas decided not to attend Wednesday's Afghanistan review meetingImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Speaking via video link, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg defended the withdrawal. "No one expected Afghanistan's political and military leadership to collapse so quickly," he said. It was now time for a reappraisal, Stoltenberg said, which NATO hopes to have completed by the end of the year. He welcomed "the fact that the German government is starting to evaluate its experience today."

Lessons for deployments

The mission was widely regarded as a turning point in German foreign and security policy. It was the first time in postwar history that Germany got involved in a mission that simultaneously pursued the goals of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and nation-building. Ninety-three thousand Bundeswehr soldiers were deployed in Afghanistan.

"Our security is also being defended in the Hindu Kush," Peter Struck, Germany's defense minister at the time, said in 2004 in an attempt to justify Germany's involvement in Afghanistan. 

General Eberhard Zorn, the highest-ranking soldier and military adviser to the government, acknowledged that the mission had never had much support in Germany. He said the time had come to learn from the deployment for the future. Zorn said the mission should be appraised as a whole and the focus should not be entirely on the very end of it. He said the Taliban's rapid seizure of power did not prove "that Western military interventions in conflict regions are generally doomed to fail." Zorn also criticized the fact that media had been quick to label the Afghanistan mission a "disaster" — before a proper review had taken place.

Though the mission had created a security framework in Afghanistan, Zorn said, that was not ultimately not used as the basis for political stabilization. With an eye to current and possible future foreign deployments, he said, the question asked now should be: "Why did the final developments take us by surprise?"

Germany's next mission?

Christopher Daase, a professor with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, told DW that German government agencies would need to work together better. He said counterinsurgency measures were vital to stabilization missions that became operations against guerrilla warfare — as Afghanistan had.

"This requires, above all, cooperation between military and civilian agencies," Daase said. "That's why the German government has sought to develop what it calls a 'network approach': to ensure that there is a cooperation between the Defense, Foreign and Development ministries — as well as civilian and military actors. That is exactly what has been lacking." Daase called the failure to attend Wednesday's meeting by Foreign Minister Maas proof "that the cooperation between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not at its best."

Displaced Afghans await help

In her closing remarks, Kramp-Karrenbauer said her personal takeaway from Wednesday's debate was: "In future, we need a different kind of communication within parliament, and outside, about the objectives of a military mission, and what state-of-the-art equipment is needed for the soldiers who are sent out."

"The acid test of whether we have learned this lesson will come upon us very quickly," she said, referring to the Bundeswehr deployment in the Sahel. In that region, Malian, French and other international forces, as well as UN peacekeepers, have long been fighting insurgents linked to the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

This article has been translated from German.

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