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German government opposes Trump's Afghan troop withdrawal

November 19, 2020

The US president wants to take a large part of American troops out of Afghanistan. Doing so could make things difficult for Germany's armed forces there.

Donald Trump grinning and pointing at the camera surrounded by US troops in Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/A. Brandon

If the US pulls most of its troops out of Afghanistan by January 15, the days may be numbered for Germany's troop presence there as well.

About 1,250 German soldiers are based in three cities — Mazar-i-Sharif, Kundus and Kabul, the capital — to advise and train the Afghan army.

Read more: 'The US is sending the message that they can't be trusted'

"In together, out together" goes the NATO motto about its mission in Afghanistan. President Donald Trump's push to withdraw appears to abandon this understanding, much to Germany's discontent. In all, 38 countries — NATO members and partner states — have about 12,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

'Don't be rash'

Berlin sees this as a poor moment to withdraw. With peace talks ongoing in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and the Afghan government, it is a particularly sensitive moment. Negotiations are faltering and violence is escalating.

"It shouldn't be taken for granted that these two sides, after decades of conflict, are sitting at the negotiating table to begin talking to one another in a constructive way," said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, adding that many uncertainties and hurdles remain.

"That's why we shouldn't add even more hurdles, which a rash exit from Afghanistan would lead to," he said.

Taliban representatives in Doha
Taliban representatives were attending the peace talks with the Afghan government in DohaImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Jaafar

Conditions to meet

Germany's defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is mindful of the connection between the peace talks and troop withdrawals. NATO members, including the US, had agreed the latter to take place only after the former created reliable conditions for it.

"As before, that is the basis we're working off of," Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Tuesday in remarks at the German Armed Forces University in Hamburg. Peace talks have not yet shown enough progress.

Read more: Opinion — US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq is irresponsible

According to the agreement made between the US and the Taliban in February, withdrawal is mainly based on two conditions: The Taliban must publicly cut its ties with the al Qaeda terror network and pledge that Afghanistan would never pose a terrorism threat again. If those conditions could be met, the US foresaw a complete withdrawal of foreign troops by April 2021. Neither has been so far, according to the UN.

Read more: Cutting US troops could put Joe Biden in a tough position

Costly operation

Germany's military involvement in Afghanistan began after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It has been the most difficult and costly operation in the country's postwar history. At its peak, Germany had 5,000 soldiers deployed, first in Kabul and then in northern Afghanistan. Fifty-nine Bundeswehr soldiers have died in Afghanistan.

In 2015, the mission changed from direct combat to training and support. Until its February agreement with the Taliban, the US had around 8,000 troops in the country. That has since been reduced to 4,500, but unlike the German presence, US troops do both training and fighting.

Bundeswehr soldiers walking aside coffin wrapped in German flag
The Bundeswehr has seen over 50 casualties in AfghanistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

Security without the US?

Now Donald Trump wants to draw down the American presence to 2,500 troops. That would fulfill the outgoing president's promise to end the "endless war" in Afghanistan.

Such a speedy withdrawal has the German government worried about the resurgence of extremist forces. US forces, as the largest and best-equipped contingent, could be called in for support to repel serious attacks, offer aerial support and evacuate wounded soldiers.

'Hasty withdrawal would be fatal' 

"The US has invested a huge amount of money, lost many lives and also caused many civilian casualties," said Roderich Kiesewetter, a conservative German MP and former soldier who has been keeping a worried eye on Trump's withdrawal plans for months. A hasty withdrawal would be fatal, he said.

More than 32,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in terror attacks, clashes and airstrikes over the past ten years, according to UN figures. Since the US operation began on October 7, 2001, at least 2,451 American soldiers have died in the country.

Kiesewetter sees the US as "morally obligated" to help Afghanistan build its military and civil society. "A hasty and rash withdrawal would only lead to the collapse of social structures and the return of organized violence of all kinds," he told DW in September. 

US 101st Airbone flying over Afghan mountains
US troops deliver airborne assistance to their NATO allies also in the mission 'Resolute Support'Image: Allison Dinner/ZUMAPRESS/imago images

'Safety the top priority' 

The German government is now looking towards the possibility of a worsening security situation if the US leaves. 

"However things develop, our soldiers' safety is the top priority," Kramp-Karrenbauer said. That may mean Germany would hasten its own withdrawal should its forces' security be put at risk. Germany's operational mandate expires on March 31, 2021. A decision on further engagement in Afghanistan is expected from NATO-member foreign ministers in early December, which could also affect whether Germany's troop presence gets extended. 

"We presume that NATO will jointly decide future adjustments," a German military spokesman told DW. 

German soldiers seem to be getting ready for a withdrawal in any case. About 100 military logistics experts have been working at the largest German facility in Mazar-i-Sharif since early November, preparing the way for the removal of military hardware from the region.

This article was translated from German.