The German parliament has started to lower the number of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. But two years ahead of the planned complete withdrawal of troops, many questions remain unresolved.
One thing is certain: by the end of 2014, international combat troops are supposed to be completely out of Afghanistan. Germany's Bundeswehr is therefore already reducing the ceiling of its mandate from the current 5,350 to 4,900 soldiers. The extended mandate, which the German parliament, the Bundestag, finalized on Thursday, will be valid until January 2013.
Johannes Pflug, spokesman for the "Task Force Afghanistan/Pakistan" in the Social Democrats' parliamentary group, does not believe that the deployment of German soldiers will be completed at that time.
"We want our combat troops to have left Afghanistan by 2013/2014," Pflug said. "But I assume that we will see at least two more extensions of the mandate."
The German government's goal is to reduce the number of German soldiers to 4,400 by January 2013. Whether this will be successful is also dependent on how the security situation in Afghanistan continues to develop.
Crucial security training
International troops are intensely training Afghan security forces
There are a number of clear priorities derived from the international community's withdrawal plans by 2014 that apply to the German deployment. In the remaining period, the Bundeswehr is supposed to speed up the development of Afghan security forces and help them to limit the Taliban's mobility as much as possible.
In total, NATO wants to train 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police. But the killing of four French troops by an Afghan soldier last week shows how massive the problems can be in the process. According to a report in the New York Times, Afghan security forces killed 58 soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the period between May 2007 and May 2011 alone.
The military training of the ANA, the Afghan national army, is only one side of the story. The soldiers also want to be paid. Figures show how dependent the army is on western funds and support: in 2012 alone, Afghanistan received eight billion euros ($10.4 billion) for troop training. But even after 2014, the military costs are estimated to reach at least six billion euros a year. If the United States and other donor countries reduce their financing as planned, a situation could develop that could leave over 100,000 of these security forces unemployed, said Pflug. This is an enormous risk.
"You don't need a vivid imagination to envision what would happen if they all run over to the other side," he said.
A dwindling economic factor
Timo Christians, Afghanistan expert for the German aid agency Welthungerhilfe, said he believes that the Afghan economy will experience an economic shock after international forces withdraw. The withdrawal, he said, would have serious implications for security policy.
"Also, the income source 'international community' will significantly decline in the next few years," Christians said. "That will not remain without consequences."
The Welthungerhilfe, which has been active in Afghanistan since 1992, wants to remain involved in the country beyond 2014. It is focusing its work on food security projects in the northern and eastern regions of the country. This involvement is not affected by the planned withdrawal of the Bundeswehr.
However, the aid workers do expect that the conflict will intensify after foreign troops pull out. In addition, there will also be fewer contracts for the Afghan economy.
"Old and new divides will open up because everyone will have to come to terms with the lesser resources available," Christians said. "Everyone is positioning themselves for the day that the foreign troops leave the country."
Diplomatic support from Germany
The extension of the Bundeswehr mandate puts the deployment in its 11th year. In the meantime, hardly anyone still believes in a military solution. In the US, but also in Germany, great hope is being placed in negotiations with the Taliban. Western diplomats consider the opening of a liaison office for the Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha a positive signal - especially since President Hamid Karzai has meanwhile grudgingly given up his resistance to talks with the Taliban.
Negotiations with the Taliban are considered the only solution
"That took some doing," said Pflug and points out the significant role which the German special representative Michael Steiner played in the process.
With the liaison office, Qatar wants to become the leading mediator in the conflict between the West and the Taliban. But for a successful course of negotiations, Afghanistan's direct neighbor Pakistan plays an even more significant role.
"Nothing will work without Pakistan," Pflug said. He said he hopes that China, which played "a very constructive role" at the Afghanistan Conference in Bonn in December, will exert pressure accordingly on its ally. Pakistan boycotted the Bonn conference after a deadly NATO air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
The negotiations with the Taliban will also deal with constitutional issues, for example women's rights. The right to unhindered schooling for girls is a thorn in the Taliban's side, but essential for the West. Everything that has been achieved in Afghanistan so far, however, is by no means only being put into question by the Taliban, said Christians.
"The current people in power are also putting many freedoms and human rights under pressure," he said.
An entirely different question will be who specifically will take part in the negotiations. For example: who will be representing Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader living in exile who has been repeatedly declared dead, but who still controls many Taliban-related activities.
One option is the Taliban representative Tayeb Agha, with whom the German intelligence service BND has established contact. Participation by the longtime Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also disputed. Pflug said the Hizb-i-Islami leader - the perhaps most significant radical Islamic group after the Taliban - was an "evil war criminal."
But German parliamentary circles would be happy if negotiations even got off the ground in the near future. In fall 2013, Germany elects a new lower house of parliament. This could lead to higher hurdles for a renewal of the Bundeswehr mandate again, Pflug said.
"Extending the mandate has already not always gone smoothly until now and the new members of the Bundestag will find it very difficult, as well," he said.
Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge