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How did the Afghanistan mission go wrong?

July 8, 2022

Germany's pullback from Afghanistan in 2021 is once again in the spotlight. A parliamentary commission now aims to find out exactly what went wrong and who is to blame?

Bundeswehr soldiers from Afghanistan arriving in Tashkent
German Bundeswehr soldiers pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021 within a matter of daysImage: Marc Tessensohn/Bundeswehr/dpa/picture alliance

The Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, wants to know why Germany's long, expensive and deadly mission to help bring peace and progress to Afghanistan proved to be such a debacle. It was a setback that opened the way for Taliban militants to sweep into the power vacuum. Observers are in no doubt that this story is about much more than the chaotic and unprecedented withdrawal of German armed forces.

"It was a catastrophe that the media were all too willing to turn away from," Ralf Stegner, a ranking member of the ruling center-left Social Democrats (SPD), said in June during a parliamentary debate on developments in Afghanistan.

Stegner was referring to the specter of starvation that was and is the biggest threat to this impoverished country. But he went on to talk about the Bundeswehr's withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Stegner is set to head a parliamentary investigation into how that situation evolved.

Germany's traumatized Afghanistan veterans

Stegner told the Bundestag what he believes to be the central question facing the inquiry: "How did so many observers get so much so wrong when it came to mapping out the 'situation assessment' that led to the seizure of power by the Taliban and the panic-driven withdrawal from Afghanistan?" Many blame Germany's Foreign Intelligence Service (the BND), for failing to foresee how regular Afghan units and the Afghan government would turn, step aside and run. Indeed, it appears that the BND had hardly contemplated such a scenario. 

Separate Enquete Commission

Ralf Stegner believes that it's right to restrict the inquiry he is leading to the final two years of Germany's mission in Afghanistan. The full deployment went all the way back to 2001. A separate Enquete Commission will be probing the complete two-decade period.

Ralf Stegner addressing the Bundestag with his left index finger pointed at the room
Stegner will head the inquiry on the end of the Bundeswehr's Afghanistan missionImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

"How was it at all possible to fail to grasp a threat that loomed so large?" political scientist Thorsten Gromes, from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, said in a TV interview with DW.

Gromes points to the fact that over the years the Afghanistan mission had been supported by a number of German governments, which should therefore all share the blame for what was to follow. That could, he said, be an opportunity to review the mistakes of the past. "But it could just as easily give all the different factions and elements an opportunity to simply vindicate their own people," he said.

Looking to the socialist Left Party, Gromes said the inquiry would simply intensify the party's opposition to any kind of interventionism.

And, indeed, Left Party foreign policy spokeswoman Sevim Dagdelen told the Bundestag that it was not the chaotic pullback that was at the root of the current disaster unfolding in Afghanistan. No, she said, the real problem was the 20 years of war that went before. And the Left Party, Dagdelen said, was against it from the start.

Dagdelen said the joint mandate for the inquiry put forward by the ruling coalition of the SPD, Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), as well as the opposition Christian Democrats — who had headed the government for the past 16 years — was a mere distraction. 

"What they certainly do not want is a far-reaching investigation into their participation in the war in Afghanistan," Dagdelen said. She pointed to the 200,000 people, including 59 Bundeswehr soldiers, who lost their lives in what she called "a meaningless adventure."

Sevim Dagdelen speaking in parliament with her hands raised to shoulder level
Left MP Dagdelen calls the Afghanistan mission a "meaningless adventure"Image: Britta Pedersen/zb/dpa/picture-alliance

When do foreign missions become occupying forces?

Stegner asked: "Under what circumstances — if at all — can it be a legitimate goal of foreign missions to try and impose regime change on another country?"

Jan Koehler knows Afghanistan from many journeys he made there since 2003. "When must military intervention be seen as an occupation?" Koehler told DW. He said he wondered what impact a long-term military presence could have on the situation on the ground, arguing that the risks should have been assessed in regular intervals.

Koehler does not go so far as to talk of "a shambles," but he argues that it is also not possible to say that two decades of military, civilian and diplomatic commitment had really improved the situation on the ground. The truth, he said, lies somewhere between: "It's very difficult to come up with any kind of conclusive historical assessment."

Instead, Koehler said, it might be better to focus the analysis on individual developments or compare different parts of the country.

How to deal with the Taliban

Koehler recalled the earliest days of the military intervention, when, in 2001, the International Conference on Afghanistan was held at the Hotel Petersberg in Bonn to seek a peaceful solution to the challenges posed by the conflict. But, in the first three years after the military intervention, the opportunity was missed "of drawing the Taliban out of a situation of political weakness and into the political process." After that, the group returned to its earlier position of strength. 

He also firmly believes that there might have been a different outcome to the international Afghanistan mission despite all the mistakes that were made. But the 2020 agreement on troop withdrawal negotiated by US President Donald Trump with the Taliban shut out and "massively undermined the government of Ashraf Ghani."

That was, Koehler said, the last opportunity. After that no real or effective peace initiative between the government and the Taliban was possible. "The sudden collapse of the government and Ghani's decision to flee the country destroyed the last chance for more moderate elements of the Taliban to seize power," Koehler said.

Protesters holding signs accusing the West and NATO of failing in Afghanistan
The conference held at Hotel Petersberg in Bonn in 2011 was accompanied by protestsImage: DANIEL ROLAND/AFP

Gromes would like to see both committees with an open mind. The goal has to be to learn lessons that will facilitate better decision-making in the future. That in turn means that there should be no "German navel-gazing."

So, Gromes said, it would be best to look at the ill-fated German Afghanistan mission in an international and historical context. The political debate, he said, tends to swing from one extreme to another. Sometimes that means that the Afghanistan mission is seen as an "individual case, with no lessons for the future" and then again as a showcase for all foreign deployments. Both positions, Gromes said, are wrong.

Democracy and regime change

Foreign missions have to be better defined from the outset, Gromes said. Are we talking about missions after a civil war is over or while conflicts are still raging? Does a mission have regime change as a goal or not? There are many different factors to consider, Gromes said.

Whether the Afghanistan investigation committee and the Enquete Commission will manage to assess developments will become clear by 2025 at the latest. That is when the current legislative period ends and both committees have to present their final reports. They intend to start their work after the end of the parliamentary summer recess in Germany in September. Their sessions will generally be held in public.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.
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