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Bundeswehr troops arrive on a German airbase after finishing the Afghanistan evacuation mission on August 27, 2021
After 20 years of Afghanistan deployments, the last German troops came home on August 27Image: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance
PoliticsGermany

Afghanistan pullout chills US-German relations

Ian Bateson
August 31, 2021

The US pullout from Afghanistan after 20 years has made the erratic Trump years look like more than a blip of American unilateralism. But German-American relations have a long history of highs and lows. 

https://p.dw.com/p/3zfVB

After the Taliban took Kabul and desperate Afghans flooded the airport trying to escape the country, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her dismay: "The developments are bitter, dramatic and terrible," she said at a press conference on August 16. "It seems right now like it was all in vain."  

For Germany, whose military has spent nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, the human and financial cost has been significant. The Bundeswehr, Germany’s army, entered Afghanistan to support the US after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 — in what would become its largest and longest military deployment abroad. Along the way, Germany committed to the nation-building project. Now those hopes have been dashed. 

The chancellor candidate for Merkel's Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet, spoke of a major blow to the trans-Atlantic relationship and dismay at US President Joe Biden's actions: "I was disappointed by his announcement on April 14 that he would implement Donald Trump's Afghanistan withdrawal order one-to-one without fully involving the allies in this momentous decision," Laschet told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in mid-August. 

"It is a big loss of confidence. In particular in America's competency as a military power," says political analyst Stephan Bierling of Regensburg University. "After four catastrophic years under Trump, we had a very positive view of Joe Biden. Now that mood is changing." 

Germany's Afghan evacuation under scrutiny

An unequal relationship   

After World War II the US played the lead role in establishing West Germany as a liberal democracy, setting up democratic institutions and a free press. The US then provided the security throughout the Cold War that ensured West Germany continued to exist alongside communist East Germany.

"The US defeated Germany in World War II and then as an occupying power was part of restructuring German society," explains Ruth Hatlapa, a historian specializing in how Germany views the US.

There was pro-Americanism in West German society that supported deeper connections, she says, but also resentment — particularly concerning West Germany's security dependence on the US, creating a "contradictory relationship," according to Hatlapa.

German residents welcome US Army troops in 1945 with white flags
After WWII, the US took an active role to reshape West German society and its democratic institutionsImage: Leemage/imago images

Vietnam was different for Germany

The relationship has seen its low points. The Vietnam War was such a case. 12,000 anti-war protesters took to the streets of West Berlin in 1968. One of them was the author Friedrich Christian Delius.

"This disappointment that the Americans, whom we admired, were going into a war that was, so to speak, completely contrary to their own principles, that stirred us up and upset us, just as it upset hundreds of thousands of American students at the time," he told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, looking back 50 years after the events unfolded. 

Germany had rejected US calls to participate militarily in Vietnam. Instead, it embarked on a humanitarian relief mission, sending a hospital ship to the war zone in 1966, coordinated by and equipped with personnel from the German Red Cross (DRK). 

Germans take stock of Afghanistan mission

German-US divide over Iraq

Another blow to the US image in Germany came in 2003. Although the US, under President George W. Bush, urged the German government to participate in the war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, then-foreign minister Joschka Fischer from the Green Party stood by his legendary phrase: "I am not convinced." 

Doubts that the invasion of Iraq was justified were based on the findings of Germany's foreign intelligence service. "According to our information at the time, the reasons Colin Powell had given before the United Nations Security Council were not substantiated, contrary to his account, and proved to be false," August Hanning, then president of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), told Die Welt newspaper. 

"The mistakes made by the US are still having an effect today: the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, the rise of the terrorist organizations al-Qaida and IS, the political instability," terrorism and security analyst Rolf Tophoven of the Institute for Crisis Prevention Iftus told German broadcaster ntv, looking back after 15 years. "We would also not have the refugee problem if there were peace in the region. Then people wouldn't have to flee to Europe." 

However, the current situation is unprecedented. "The main difference is obvious: In Afghanistan we have had soldiers as long as America has had soldiers there," says historian Klaus Schwabe, a professor at RWTH Aachen University.

Angela Merkel and Donald Trump at a NATO summit in December 2019
Germany took a very positive view of Biden after four years of strained relations with Trump Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Vucci

Blow to the trans-Atlantic relationship

"Afghanistan is a reality check for those who had big plans for a revived trans-Atlantic relationship," says Bastian Giegerich of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.  

"Germany's direct involvement has made recent events much more painful. It mixes a sense of failure, disappointment and humiliation," he says. "The fall of Kabul shows crystal clear that Germany and other European powers don't have the means to pursue an independent strategy."  

In the wake of events in Afghanistan, calls for greater German and European military independence are getting louder. "The EU must be able to act without its American partner. We must be able to secure an airport like the one in Kabul on our own," said Laschet in his interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  

When the Biden administration entered office, it called on Germany and other European partners to take tougher lines on China and Russia, hoping to mobilize the EU into taking a stronger stance on protecting liberal democracies.   

Recent events in Afghanistan may have been counterproductive, says political analyst Giegerich. "Afghanistan was a mission that from a German and European point of view was undertaken out of solidarity with the US. Many here will feel, 'we did this for the US and look how it ended.'"

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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