The Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan, a country with a long history of military invasions, has had a profound influence on German foreign policy, says Florian Weigand.
Mission accomplished? The opium crop in Afghanistan is larger than it ever has been, and the number of attacks by the Taliban has also set new records. Even in Kunduz, the former heartland of the Bundeswehr mission, the insurgents were able to symbolically hoist their flag last summer, albeit for a short time.
Now there are fears that the Taliban and the "Islamic State" are beginning to hold talks. Large parts of the country are no longer under (largely corrupt) state control; instead, people are once again obeying local warlords. The capital Kabul is no longer safe even in its highly secured center, with attacks coming one after another. In short, this is not what success normally looks like.
But to call it a complete defeat would also be incorrect. The 13-year mission of NATO's International Security Assistance Force saw the establishment of many hospitals and schools - never before have so many girls attended lessons. This, of course, has primarily been thanks to civilian aid. But without the presence of Germany's Bundeswehr and other foreign forces, and the related financial aid, none of this would have been possible. Afghanistan has changed.
But so has Germany. When the German army headed to the Hindu Kush in 2001, the naive belief was that it was going to be a deployment similar to the Balkan mission in the 1990s. It was thought that the airstrikes launched after the 9/11 attacks had bombed the Taliban into submission, and that Afghanistan would soon be at peace, like Bosnia and Kosovo. Soldiers would be able to go through the streets, handing out chocolate and paving the way for reconstruction projects, thus winning the hearts of the local population. It may be hard to believe today, but in the first days of the German mission, soldiers drove through the Kunduz bazaars in locally-bought cars, without armor.
Afghanistan shaped foreign policy
But opposition began to grow, first as the Bundeswehr were out in the field and then quite openly. Suddenly German soldiers found themselves embroiled in ground combat with well-trained local guerrillas. There were casualties, and psychologically traumatized soldiers returned bringing their horrific experiences from Afghanistan into German living rooms. Elsewhere, families mourned those who would never come home.
It was war - a word that not even the politicians dared utter, even as more and more coffins came back to Germany. And then, in September 2009, a German officer ordered the bombing of two fuel tankers near Kunduz. Nearly 100 innocent civilians were killed, and the Bundeswehr was now at fault. The support for the Afghanistan mission among the German population dwindled further, and the government found it increasingly difficult to justify the deployment.
The shape of Germany's foreign policy today is tied tightly to these experiences, explaining the hesitation to join the 2011 airstrikes against Libya and the more recent allied mission against the "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria. Germany is a pacifist country, no longer due to the fading and increasingly ritualized commemorations of its World War II guilt, but specifically due to the ISAF mission. Since 2001, a whole generation of officers has seen real combat. Their experiences, which they now bring to the Defense Ministry, are substantially influencing foreign policy.
At the same time, Germany's deployment in Afghanistan has started a momentum that is now almost impossible to stop. In future, the international community will expect Germany to contribute. That applies to the follow-up both to the Afghanistan mission as well as the new mandate in the Kurdish region. For the latter, the interpretation of Germany's constitution has been stretched to the limit.
Officially, Germany's ongoing involvement is to be limited to the training of Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. But the last 13 years in Afghanistan should be enough of an example of how fast the Bundeswehr can be dragged into a combat mission. How Germany ends up balancing pacifism and its international political responsibilities remains to be seen.
Afghanistan has seen many foreign troops come and go over the centuries: Persians, Greeks, Huns, Mongols, Arabs, British, Soviets, and most recently the ISAF soldiers. All have left their mark, to a greater or lesser extent, but Afghanistan has remained Afghanistan.