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Afghanistan: What's next for the Bundeswehr?

Austin Davis
February 21, 2019

The German government plans to continue its military presence in Afghanistan through 2020. But uncertainty over whether the US will withdraw its troops from the country has opposition lawmakers calling for an exit plan.

German soldier in Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/JOKER/T. Vog

The potential US withdrawal from Afghanistan hung over lawmakers in Berlin on Thursday as they debated a new government proposal to extend Germany's military presence in the war-torn country for another year.

"If the US doesn't know itself what it wants in Afghanistan, how can we possibly justify sending 1,300 soldiers into this war?" asked Left lawmaker Stefan Liebich, whose party is petitioning to withdraw Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, from Afghanistan.

Last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet adopted its continuing resolution on Afghanistan, which would extend the Bundeswehr's involvement in the NATO-led noncombat mission Resolute Support through March 2020. German troops are primarily involved in training Afghan soldiers in the north of the country.

Germany is the second-largest bilateral contributor of developmental and military support to Afghanistan after the US. As such, the government's €360 million ($409 million) initiative to keep up to 1,300 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan is needed to guarantee that "human rights and the rule of law don't go to the dogs," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in his opening remarks.

"We took on responsibility in Afghanistan," he said. "And it is a part of our responsibility that human rights, the rights of women and minorities, these concepts of normalcy, are protected in Afghanistan."

Map showing where German troops operate in Afghanistan
The Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan primarily involves training troops in the north of the country

A 'delicate' situation

In his remarks, Maas underscored how efforts by German and NATO forces over almost two decades have helped promote democratic institutions and better living standards in Afghanistan. "For the most part, boys and girls who were born in 2001 are the first generation in decades to be able to go to school," he said. "Life expectancy has risen from 44 to 62, and last October, the people of Afghanistan were able to freely elect a parliament for the third time since the end of Taliban rule."

Read more: Can peace prevail in Afghanistan?

Despite the progress, the current situation in Afghanistan remains "delicate" no matter how you look at it, Conrad Schetter, director of the Bonn International Conservation Center and an expert on Afghanistan, told DW. "We can observe over the last year increasing violence and conflict from both sides," he said. "American raids increased, and the Taliban particularly focused on the provinces close to Kabul. Both sides are currently trying to gain a better position in this diplomatic gamble by showing military victories."

This has only exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation, Schetter added. About one-third of Afghanistan's 34.7 million citizens are in need of humanitarian assistance and poverty has reached 55 percent, according to figures from the United Nations.

Last year, the US controversially renewed peace talks with the Taliban without the involvement of the Afghan government. The US is reportedly offering to withdraw much of its 16,000 troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a ceasefire — a politically attractive policy for US President Donald Trump.

German soldier training Afghans in Kunduz
Germany's military presence in Afghanistan dates back 18 yearsImage: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/B. Kietzmann

US assurances?

Both Foreign Minister Maas and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen reassured Bundestag members Thursday that Washington had promised to consult Germany and other NATO members in advance before making any changes to its engagement in Afghanistan.

That assurance seemingly answered German Chancellor Angela Merkel's plea to US officials at the recent Munich Security Conference to consider the developmental consequences of an untimely withdrawal. "I have a very simple and heartfelt request," she said in her remarks to conference attendees. "That we also talk about questions of development with one another."

Read more: Afghan conflict receives scant attention at Munich Security Conference

A US withdrawal would almost certainly have a significant impact on NATO's developmental and state-building initiatives in the country, seeing as how coalition forces are "fully dependent on the logistics of the American army," said Schetter. "The risk is that after the withdrawal of troops, we'd see the rise of fiefdoms and a breaking apart of the country."

Afghanistan: Ursula von der Leyen
Von der Leyen assured lawmakers that the US would discuss any changes to its Afghanistan presence with GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

'Keep calm'

That kind of scenario was a frequent topic during Thursday's Bundestag debate. Though opposition lawmakers agreed on the need for a continued German presence in Afghanistan, they criticized the government's lack of a contingency plan should the US actually pull out.

"What would happen if the president of the United States actually did withdraw troops?" Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann of the business-friendly Free Democrats asked. "The times of a muddling on need to come to a close."

Read more: Taliban outline vision for postwar Afghanistan in Moscow peace talks

Despite the foggy future of US involvement, Schetter said that Germany should ultimately "keep calm in going ahead."

"If we really want to reach peace in Afghanistan, we have to extend the mission there," he said. "If German troops withdraw, it would directly affect the whole development of the country, and the whole construction of development in Afghanistan would collapse."