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Germany had to help in Afghanistan, ex-foreign minister says

July 3, 2023

A German parliamentary inquiry is seeking "lessons from Afghanistan" after the two-decade mission that ended with a rapid Taliban return. Joschka Fischer said participating was crucial to Germany's place in NATO.

Enquete-Kommission «Lehren aus Afghanistan» Joschka Fische
Joschka Fischer said Germany would have paid an unacceptable price in terms of credibility and goodwill within NATO if it had refused to help in AfghanistanImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was in the job during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US and the invasion of Afghanistan that followed soon after, told a parliamentary inquiry on Monday in Berlin that he believed the government of the time had no real choice but to participate in the mission to topple the Taliban government

"If we had said no, we would have completely shattered and smashed Germany's security architecture," Fischer told the inquiry called "lessons from Afghanistan." 

Fischer was one of four senior government officials from across the two-decade intervention who briefed the inquiry at the Bundestag on Monday.

The three politicians tried to strike a largely positive note, despite the unhappy ending as Western troops withdrew in 2021, but the former spymaster on the panel offered more critical recollections.

Gerhard Schindler, Thomas de Maiziere, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul and Joschka Fischer (from left to right in that order) at a German parliamentary inquiry into the military intervention in Afghanistan. Berlin, July 3, 2023.
Gerhard Schindler, Thomas de Maiziere, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul and Joschka Fischer (from left to right in that order) were all close to the Afghan mission as part of several different German governments during the two decades; all appeared at the inquiry on MondayImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

What did Fischer say about the decision to intervene? 

Fischer said it was clear very early that Germany would meet its alliance obligations and take part, as the US invoked NATO's Article 5 mutual defense clause for the first and only time in the alliance's history.

"If we had not gone with them, we would have paid an enormous price in the alliance," Fischer said,

Not to take that price seriously "would in my opinion be gambling with our country's raison d'etre and everything that has been achieved since 1949," Fischer said. 

Joschka Fischer during a visit to Kabul in Afghanistan when he was German foreign minister. Archive image, November 26, 2002.
Fischer was a Green party leader with a pacifist track record who found himself as a foreign minister in coalition government having to advocate military interventions, first in Kosovo and then Afghanistan, because of geopolitical events. Today's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock faces similar challenges amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Image: Tim_Brakemeier/dpa/picture alliance

Afghanistan as the Bundeswehr's first proving ground? 

Germany became the second-largest contributor of troops to the mission in Afghanistan, far behind the US, at times with as many as 5,000 in the country during the 20-year deployment. It's the longest and largest overseas operation by far that the Bundeswehr military has been involved in since World War II.

Thomas de Maiziere, later a defense minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel, told the inquiry on Monday that Afghanistan had been a "bitter, but important experience" for the Bundeswehr. 

He said the mission had had a major impact on the German military's image among allies, and that Germany had "earned respect as a security power" that it previously did not have in NATO.

Germany's traumatized Afghanistan veterans

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a Social Democrat who was development minister in three consecutive coalition governments starting in 1998, said that if nothing else, the intervention had improved the lives of many women and girls for a generation.

"It was not for nothing," she said. For 20 years, she said, people had had a very different life, and she said many of them would still try to hang on to some of those changes under renewed Taliban rule.

Fischer: Afghanistan was the 'first victim of Iraq war'

Foreign minister from 1998 to 2005, Fischer was part of the first-ever German coalition government with the Greens as junior partners.

The Afghan intervention, and NATO's intervention in Kosovo before that, were unpopular with the Greens' historical pacifist, anti-nuclear, student base — yet they were the two main foreign policy developments Fischer had to handle in his first term. 

However, Fischer and Germany, like France and several other NATO members, stopped short two years later of joining the US-led invasion of Iraq. 

A stern critic of that war, Fischer evoked it on Monday when other panelists — like former foreign intelligence chief Gerhard Schindler — charged that the West had gone into Afghanistan poorly equipped and with no real plan. 

Fischer said he had previously said, and still believed, that Afghanistan was "the first victim of the Iraq war," arguing that the Bush administration's shifting focus towards Saddam Hussein and Baghdad soon started to hurt the operation in Afghanistan. 

Asked what he'd attribute the current situation in Afghanistan to, with the Taliban back in power within days of the NATO forces leaving the country, Fischer pointed primarily to the "rash, overly hasty withdrawal."

A woman in Berlin protests with a placard that reads "let Afghan girls learn". January 14, 2023.
Wieczorek-Zeul said the intervention had drastically improved the lives of many girls and women in Afghanistan for a generation, even if those advances are not under threat once moreImage: Olaf Schuelke/IMAGO

Only the opium trade was up and running again: ex-spy chief 

It was the former head of Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler, who took the most openly critical tone at Monday's hearing. 

He said that during his 2011-2016 tenure, he had already experienced a country "in decline." He spoke of safe "green zones" that kept shrinking and non-secure "red zones" that kept growing on the maps, and said the BND had foiled some 19 plots to attack Bundeswehr troops.

"By my recollection, everything was bad," Schindler said, saying only the opium production industry had properly recovered, serving merely to make the country more dangerous. 

He accused Berlin of failing to think about an exit-strategy, even as the mission's failure was becoming apparent. 

"The emergency plan that was mentioned now and again — whenever the Americans go, we will go too — was not really an exit strategy, to put it charitably," Schindler said. 

De Maiziere, a contemporary of Schindler, responded critically himself, saying Germany could not have practically withdrawn from Afghanistan by itself.

He said it was not the government's task "to transfer BND warnings into policy," and told Schindler the BND was not "in charge of foreign and security policy." 

Fischer, meanwhile, tried a slightly more conciliatory approach, still disputing that the idea to go in the first place had been a mistake. But he conceded Schindler was right that NATO powers had not set out to Afghanistan carrying a "crate full of competences," as he put it, neither militarily not diplomatically nor in terms of development policy.

He called the intervention "a jump into cold water." 

msh/lo (dpa, epd)