The German government has opted to extend the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan for another year. The move defies concerns that the US is preparing to pull out of the country, rendering Germany's contribution futile.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet has decided to extend the military mission in Afghanistan a day after an internal strategy paper showed Germany had offered to host another peace conference, this time with an extra invitation for the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement currently at war with NATO in the country. The Taliban took part in framework talks with US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar, last month, while further talks, without the US, were held in Moscow.
The Bundeswehr currently has around 1,200 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, part of NATO's Resolute Support mission, though the whole operation was thrown into uncertainty in late December, when news reports from the US suggested that President Donald Trump was planning to withdraw around half of the US military's 14,000 troops in Afghanistan.
No timetable was laid out for the mooted withdrawal, though several German military experts, most notably retired General Harald Kujat, told the media at the time that a US withdrawal would render Germany's continued presence futile.
Is Trump too naive?
Meanwhile, an internal document leaked to German weekly Der Spiegel on Tuesday (and released on Wednesday) showed the government expressing doubts about the prospects of peace in Afghanistan and apparently criticizing any potential US withdrawal plans as naive and overly hasty.
In a strategy paper addressed to selected Bundestag members, the government said Washington was making an effort to find a political solution quickly in order to pave the way to a military withdrawal. But experience had shown that "such a process can last several years without decisive breakthroughs," especially "in the face of the complex inner-Afghan and international negotiating position."
The document, which was signed off by Angela Merkel's office, the Defense Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry, added: "Should the US withdraw its military engagement significantly, the government will thoroughly reassess its actions in Afghanistan."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Rainer Breul played down the significance of the 11-page dossier at a regular press conference on Wednesday, pointing out repeatedly that the US had not yet communicated any concrete withdrawal plans. "This is not a document about the USA, it's about Afghanistan, and our thoughts for a peace process and how we can support it, either militarily, or on a civilian level, or on development cooperation," he said.
New peace process?
Breul also said that the mooted peace conference, mentioned in passing in the paper, was merely the reiteration of an offer Germany had made many times before. "Our line remains very clear, that we need an inner-Afghan peace process, that we would support if it is desired, no more and no less," he said.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen insists that important progress has been made in the country
Germany first hosted an Afghanistan peace summit at the Petersberg castle, outside Bonn, in December 2001. The resulting "Bonn Agreement" laid the foundations for the NATO-backed state-building efforts in Afghanistan following the alliance's invasion of the country.
This week's document, however, expressly mentions that the Taliban should be invited, though it added that such a conference should only take place at "an appropriate stage of the negotiations."
Omid Nouripour, foreign policy spokesman for the opposition Green party, welcomed the government's offer, but added "making a conference room available is not enough." He told DW that "the government must also say what realistic prospects it has for Afghanistan, and how these should be reached."
Read more: How does Germany contribute to NATO?
How much longer?
The government representatives were silent on Wednesday on exactly how long the Bundeswehr intended to stay in Afghanistan, where one of its chief tasks is to train the local army. When it began in 2001, the Afghanistan mission represented the first time since World War II that German soldiers were involved in serious fighting on the ground. Some 55 Bundeswehr soldiers lost their lives in the first 13 years of the NATO-led mission now referred to as Resolute Support. Since then, the German military is primarily involved in training Afghan soldiers in the northern region around Mazar-i-Sharif, and performing reconnaissance missions for NATO partners.
Defense Ministry spokesman Frank Fähnrich insisted that Germany had achieved concrete advances in Afghanistan since then, including helping to set up an electricity grid in the region and schools. According to Fähnrich, some 8 million Afghan children now attend school in the country, as opposed to 1 million in 2001. Withdrawing the military from the country now would put these achievements "at risk," he said.
The Cabinet also decided on Wednesday to extend three other military missions: The Bundeswehr's participation in NATO's Sea Guardian mission in the Mediterranean, meant to deter weapons smuggling and human trafficking, as well as contributions to United Nations missions in Sudan and South Sudan.