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Is Germany reassessing its role in Afghanistan?

Masood Saifullah
March 20, 2019

As US and Taliban negotiators make progress in their talks on the issue of foreign troop withdrawal and counterterrorism, Germany is mulling over a strategy to continue its engagement with the war-torn nation.

Afghanistan Bundeswehrsoldaten in Masar-I-Scharif
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Germany has been deeply involved in Afghanistan since the US-led international forces invaded the country in 2001 and toppled the Taliban regime there. The first international conference for Afghanistan's reconstruction was held in the same year in the German city of Bonn, where the foundations for the current Afghan government were laid.   

A decade later, in 2011, Germany hosted a second Bonn conference. Representatives of the Taliban were absent on both occasions.

As the US-Taliban peace talks progress, Germany sees an opportunity to play a key role in the Afghan reconciliation process by hosting yet another conference. This time, Berlin wants to make sure that the Taliban are represented.

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

"We don't want to hold a conference just for the sake of it, but a conference that can yield tangible results," Markus Potzel, former German ambassador to Afghanistan and Berlin's current special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told DW. The timing of any such conference is therefore critical to its success, he said.

'We're not there yet'

Observers say much more needs to be done for such a conference to take place at this point of time.

Katar | Taliban | Friedensgespräche
The Taliban have held multiple rounds of talks with US negotiators, but have so far refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan governmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Taliban have held multiple rounds of talks with US negotiators, but have so far refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government or commit to a ceasefire amid nearly daily attacks. The latest round of talks between the two sides ended on March 11, after 16 days of negotiations, with Taliban and US officials claiming to have made progress on the issue of foreign troop withdrawal and counterterrorism.

Other topics for discussion are direct talks between the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban, and a ceasefire, said Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for Afghan peace efforts.

Without an agreement on these crucial issues, experts say, it would be difficult for Germany to host a third Bonn conference. "We are not there yet," Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told DW.

Read more: Bette Dam: 'I want people to question the war on terror'

Berlin's support

In recent years, Germany has played a major role in NATO's Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces in their conflict with insurgent and extremist outfits like the Taliban.

Germany has stationed the second-largest contingent of foreign troops as part of the mission, with about 1,200 German soldiers based in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. But support for continuing the 18-year Afghan war is as lacking in European capitals as it is in Washington.

For this reason, US allies — including Germany — have been pushing for a resolution of the conflict which will pave the way for their troops to return home. Reports suggest that US envoy Khalilzad aims to reach an agreement with the Taliban before Afghanistan's presidential elections in July.

German officials, however, say that resolving the Afghan conflict requires more time. "These are only pre-talks. Real peace talks have to take place between the Taliban and an inclusive Afghan negotiating team led by the Afghan government," Potzel said. "I have stated time and again that it will take time to reach a comprehensive agreement on peace in Afghanistan, which should end a 40-year-old conflict," he stressed.

The pullout

US officials, however, seem to have a different opinion. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he wants his country's military engagement in Afghanistan to either end of shrink drastically in size. The Afghan government and many Western officials fear that this could lead to a hasty peace deal with the Taliban.

"If the US decides to pull out its troops, the other NATO countries — including Germany — would quickly follow suit," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

In such a case, according to experts, Germany's actions will mirror that of the US. If there's a peace deal, Germany will most probably plan for a phased withdrawal — just as the US would do. But in case peace talks fail, pulling out international forces could prove very risky as the Taliban could come to power and jeopardize any gains Afghan society has made over the past 18 years.

"While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani may be right that a hasty peace deal may not result in long-term peace, there's no other option than to try to pursue a deal," Kugelman said. 

Prioritizing human rights?

The Afghan war has not been popular in Germany for many years. Berlin is increasingly coming under pressure to end its security engagement in the country as well as stop providing financial assistance to a corrupt Afghan government. Against this backdrop, the Qatar peace process presents a beacon of hope for Berlin.

German officials have long linked Berlin's aid to Afghanistan to certain conditions, including the fight against corruption and respect for human rights.

Special envoy Potzel stressed that Germany's economic cooperation with Afghanistan after any peace agreement will continue to depend on constitutional continuity and the protection of human rights. "German aid has to prioritize meeting the basic needs of the population, no matter whether people live in Taliban-controlled areas or those administered by the government," Katja Mielke a senior researcher at Bonn International Center for Conversion, told DW. 

Observers suspect that the US may turn a blind eye to some human rights issues in a bid to reach a deal with the Taliban. They argue that it's therefore more important that countries like Germany focus more on the people of Afghanistan and "say no to its allies when human rights, press freedom, women rights and democracy are at risk."