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Extending Germany's Afghanistan mission a mistake

Hasselbach Christoph Kommentarbild App
Christoph Hasselbach
March 27, 2021

The German parliament, the Bundestag, has extended the Bundeswehr's mandate in Afghanistan by another year. But lawmakers no longer seem interested in the meaning of the mission, says Christoph Hasselbach.

German troops in Afghanistan against an orange sky
German troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly 20 yearsImage: picture-alliance/JOKER/T. Vog

Looking back at the West's military intervention in Afghanistan, two things come to mind — gross overconfidence and no shortage of illusions. This was especially true for Germany and its military, the Bundeswehr.

The Afghan mission, now almost 20 years old, was launched in reaction to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, which Washington quickly blamed on the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan. Germany, eager to support the US and prove its loyalty to the military alliance, quickly climbed aboard. Former Defense Minister Peter Struck of the center-left SPD justified the move by saying the security of Germany "must also be defended in the Hindu Kush."

A failure to secure democracy

The German people, and parliament, needed a very good reason to accept the idea of sending troops to a conflict region so far from home. Consequently, there was much talk about transforming the country into a stable democracy.

Christoph Hasselbach
Christoph HasselbachImage: DW/M.Müller

The mission's first goal has been achieved: Afghanistan is no longer a military threat to either the US or its allies. The second goal, however — bringing stability and democracy to the war-torn country — is as evasive today as it was two decades ago.

Eva Högl, the German parliament's commissioner for the military, has admitted that the country's lofty goals weren't reached. And Fritz Felgentreu, the SPD's defense expert in parliament, has agreed that "Afghanistan hasn't become a democracy." Responding to a report by a Bundeswehr officer criticizing the mission, he said it was "not a new finding that human rights violations and corruption are widespread in Afghanistan, including on the part of the government."

US wants out

For the pragmatic Americans, beating down the military threat was enough to justify wrapping up the mission and bringing its troops home. Former President Donald Trump made troop withdrawals contingent upon peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But he didn't really seem to care about the fact that the Taliban was gaining in strength, and what that would mean for future peace and stability in the region — a view shared in part by his successor, Joe Biden.

Germany, which aims to stand by its principles, now sees itself in a dilemma. It fears that if foreign troops leave the country the government in Kabul, which only controls a small fraction of Afghanistan, will quickly collapse. That would destroy all of the advances made to date in schooling and women's rights.

"We don't want to run the risk of the Taliban returning to violence and trying to gain power by military means by withdrawing from Afghanistan too early," said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas earlier this week.

Would 30 years make a difference?

If the goal is to prevent this setback, and if after nearly 20 years Afghanistan is no closer to stabilization, how long should the Bundeswehr stay in Afghanistan? Thirty years? Fifty years? And what, if anything, would that change?

To date, 59 German soldiers have been killed on the mission, which has cost German taxpayers upwards of €16 billion ($18.9 billion) as of 2018 — and that's only counting pure military expenditures.

The Bundeswehr is no longer defending German interests in Afghanistan, if it ever was. And the goal of transforming Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy was always an illusion. There is, therefore, no justification for continuing the mission.

Is there solidarity left in the military alliance?

If the Americans end up withdrawing from Afghanistan, the decision would be made for Germany anyway. Germany and other US allies are so dependent on US troops that they would not, and could not, continue the mission without them.

The question now is whether there is any solidarity left in the military alliance, in the event Biden agrees to maintain at least some presence in Afghanistan to keep the pressure on the Taliban at the negotiating table.

But that's still not enough reason to justify extending the German mandate. Speaking recently with German radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, Eva Högl said that previous mandates were "pretty much just waved through parliament from one year to the next." Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what has happened again.

This article has been translated from German.

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