The countdown has started. The withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan officially began on Saturday, May 1. The German army plans to bring all of its 1,100 soldiers stationed there back to Germany by mid-August.
So are Afghanistan's allies abandoning the country — leaving it to deal with both the current violence and the threat of more to come? German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was keen to counter this impression when he visited the country at the end of last week. Germany would continue to provide Afghanistan, he assured, and remain a reliable partner for the Afghan people. Despite the fact that the military operation was coming to an end, "we are continuing our commitment in all other areas," Maas declared.
There are certainly plenty of ways in which Germany and other Western countries can support Afghanistan's development in the future. The military involvement that is now ending after almost 20 years has outlived its usefulness as a stabilizing element. But the withdrawal of NATO troops is also having a positive effect in some respects, Jürgen Hardt, a foreign policy spokesperson for Germany's CDU/CSU parliamentary group, told DW. "It puts pressure on both the Taliban and the government to make progress in the upcoming talks," he said. He added that there was also pressure from the country's Western partners: "They can exert their influence through their economic support for the country, for example."
Financial aid as leverage
Hardt referred to the current budget of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). About €375 million of this are earmarked for Afghanistan. "This money is extremely important for every Afghan government," Hardt said. "It finances things like incomes for public sector employees, schools, and infrastructure projects. Afghanistan relies on this aid."
He added that Germany would make its support conditional on the extent to which the goals it has supported so far continue to be implemented in the future. "For example, Germany places importance on good teaching in schools, and respect for women's rights. Future aid contributions will depend a great deal on the extent to which these concerns are implemented."
'The Taliban don't want civil war'
However, Afghanistan's Western partners can also support the country in other ways, says Ellinor Zeino, who heads the Kabul office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Its staff, like those of the other political foundations, were asked to leave the country on May 1 for one or two weeks as a preventive measure. But that doesn't mean they are ending their involvement, she told DW. Zeino says the Taliban really do want a political solution because, in the long term, this is the only way they can achieve their two most important goals: complete troop withdrawal, and participation in government. "If they tried to achieve their goals by force, it could lead to a civil war," she said. "The Taliban don't want that either."
Furthermore, Zeino explains, the Taliban want international recognition. "They want to be perceived as a state power, not a guerrilla group. So Western states can also support the process by acting as moderators." In any case, mediation or moderation can only be provided by foreign actors, such as international partner states or the United Nations because "any group from Afghanistan itself that took on the role of moderator would be biased in favor of its own interests, would find it difficult to gain acceptance throughout Afghanistan, or might fuel further intra-Afghan conflict."
Opportunities for dialogue
In some ways, the ground for a culture of discussion was prepared long ago, says Nadia Nashir, the chair of Germany's Afghan Volunteer Women's Association. Germany's aim, she said, was always to establish a reliable form of statehood in Afghanistan. "That's why it has to continue."
"There's also a good foundation for this in some respects because a great many Afghans are liberal and moderate."
Nashir said that, from working on the Women's Association's many projects, she knows that concrete cooperation among Afghans themselves is one of the most important ways of building trust. "Our principle is to work exclusively with local people, those who live specifically where the projects will be implemented. This creates trust and acceptance — also among the men. They too support our work."
To date, says Ellinor Zeino, the Adenauer Foundation has promoted this process of understanding, at the level of civil society. A non-partisan dialog forum has been set up for this purpose. Representatives of conflicting parties are invited to the table; there have been discussions between middle-class women's groups and representatives of religious groups, for example. "Both sides initially harbor considerable reservations about each other, but then, over the course of the discussions, they often find common ground." Each side becomes aware that the other has also experienced suffering. Zeino comments that both sides have often also felt excluded from the political process. "This can form the basis for them to have a conversation, often for the first time ever."
A hunger for education
Nadia Nashir sees the great hunger for education among many Afghans as a reason for hope. "We see this in our school projects. So many people want to enroll their children that we have great difficulty offering enough places." Women, in particular, she added, care deeply about their children's education. "They run considerable risks for it. They walk on paths that have not yet been completely cleared of mines. That shows how much education is worth to them."
There are, however, limits, said Ellinor Zeino. She explained that the women the Adenauer Foundation supports are learning to argue in religious terms because in view of the current power constellation, no other basis for argument is possible. "People should have no illusions: There will only be progress on women's rights and civil liberties in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future if these are discussed on the basis of religious principles rather than surrendering religious discourse to the Taliban alone. We are contributing to this by providing appropriate forums for discussion."
Between optimism and fear
On the whole, foreign policy spokesperson Jürgen Hardt said he is quite hopeful for Afghanistan. "There is increased acceptance of women's involvement in public life, for example. Similarly, many more people now accept the expansion of schooling, and contacts with representatives of the West — the Taliban included." However, Hardt concedes that many things are still far from ideal.
They may be willing to change, but many Afghans are also extremely worried about the future, with all its current uncertainties. "All of our staff are afraid that there could be a war if the upcoming negotiations fail," said Nadia Nashir. And so she is asking the country's allies for support: "Don't abandon Afghanistan!"