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Germany honors soldiers who fought in Afghanistan mission

Jon Shelton
October 13, 2021

German leaders gathered in Berlin Wednesday to honor the sacrifice of Bundeswehr soldiers who were part of the country’s Afghanistan mission. Still, questions remain as to the mission's effectiveness.

Soldiers carry a wreath honoring fallen comrades as President Steinmeier and other politicians follow
More than 150,000 Bundeswehr soldiers served in Germany's Afghanistan mission, 59 of them were killed in battleImage: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung/dpa/picture alliance

German leaders, including outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, gathered in Berlin on Wednesday to officially mark the end of Germany's nearly 20-year Afghanistan mission and honor the sacrifices made by the men and women of the Bundeswehr.

The traditional military ceremony began with a wreath-laying at the Bundeswehr Memorial for the army's war dead, which the Defense Ministry said took place "in quiet contemplation: The Afghanistan mission shaped the Bundeswehr — 59 comrades lost their lives."

Later, soldiers gathered in the early-afternoon sun for a formal final roll call at the Defense Ministry's parade grounds, where troops stood at attention as they were greeted by the defense minister and president.

Kramp-Karrenbauer and Steinmeier both delivered remarks.  

Steimeier speaks of 'hope and disillusionment'

In addressing troops — some 150,000 of whom served in Afghanistan — Steinmeier spoke of the sacrifices made by the armed forces, of "hope and disillusionment," and the very different things that Afghanistan means to German society at large and to those who served in the armed forces there.

Moreover, Steinmeier praised the Bundewehr's success and spoke of the importance of acknowledging the physical, psychological and emotional wounds suffered by soldiers and the importance of speaking openly about those sacrifices.  

The president's speech put great emphasis on the fact that "the soldiers of the Bundeswehr are our fellow citizens, our neighbors, our friends. They are citizens in uniform — and the stories of the Bundeswehr are our stories. They deserve to be heard." 

Steinmeier also spoke of the hard questions that Germany must ask itself in a changing world. He was clear about the fact that this is no time to shrink from responsibility internationally but underscored the need for "honest" realism "when it comes to defining what the country must and can, in fact, do."

Steinmeier said soldiers "deserve a security policy that draws on lessons learned" from the long mission in Afghanistan but noted that this will take weeks and months, calling it "a task for the new administration and the new parliament to take up."

After lamenting the fact that Germany failed to meet its larger political aim of establishing a stable Afghanistan, the president called for "more honest, clever and stronger foreign and security policy" in the future.

In closing, he said: "We need a strong Bundeswehr — our partners expect it and our army deserves it. You are committed to your country and your country is committed to you. That is an agreement that must be honored — and it is."  

Germany's traumatized Afghanistan veterans

The end of a long mission alongside allies

The ceremony honoring Germany's Afghanistan mission closed Wednesday evening with a torchlight parade and taps known as the Grosser Zapfenstreich (Grand Tattoo).

Germany's Afghanistan mission began as part of the NATO alliance's Article 5 commitment, which requires all partners to come to the aid of one who is attacked. That treaty obligation came into force after the US was attacked by Islamist terrorists on September 11, 2001. The first German soldiers arrived in Afghanistan in January 2002.

In all, Germany's Defense Ministry says, the mission — the longest in the army's over-65-year history — cost at least €12.5 billion ($14.6 billion) in combat and training operations. Germany was one of the alliance's biggest contributors of troops.

"It was important to intervene in Afghanistan and to stop the capability of the Taliban to spread attacks and terror on Western countries," Deputy Defense Minister Thomas Silberhorn told DW on Wednesday. "This mission has been accomplished by our armies in international cooperation, and what remains, additionally, is 20 years of freedom and stabilization in Afghanistan, 20 years of economic and social development."

When the United States decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, Western allies followed suit. Germany's Afghanistan mission ended on June 29, 2021, when its last soldiers left the country. The Taliban, which had been removed from power in 2001 for refusing to hand over terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks, swiftly reclaimed the country. 

Currently, the Bundeswehr is involved in 11 missions abroad, with 2,500 soldiers on three continents. 

Video: Gen. Jens Arlt on Germany's Afghanistan mission