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Taliban advance puts Berlin under pressure

August 15, 2021

As the Taliban advances on Kabul, there is rising concern about German nationals and local Afghans who helped the Bundeswehr and how fast they can be evacuated.

Afghanistan | Taliban-Kämpfer
Image: Sidiqullah Khan/AP/dpa/picture alliance

It was a race against time, which is why German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, as he explained on Twitter, decided to transfer staff from the German embassy to the military part of Kabul airport. As he was tweeting, the Taliban were already making their way through the streets of the Afghan capital.

Meanwhile, the German Bild tabloid reported in its Sunday edition that the German army had received orders to deploy an evacuation mission and that a first plane, an Airbus A 400 M with 200 paratroopers on board, was expected to set off. The German Defense Ministry would not comment but crisis meetings are still underway in Berlin.

Many other countries, including the US, have already sent planes to evacuate their embassy staff. All Sunday, US army helicopters were seen flying between the embassy district and Kabul airport.

'Today, not tomorrow'

"The evacuation of the embassy has to be put in place today, not tomorrow," Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a defense-focused MP with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), told DW. "Any time could be too late."

Concern for the safety of Germans in Afghanistan is one issue; the other is concern for the safety of local Afghans who worked for the German army, the Bundeswehr, during its long deployment in the country, as translators and in other capacities. The last German soldiers left Afghanistan on June 29 and even then many were already pushing for the evacuation of local employees, including German army veterans who had served in Afghanistan.

A week earlier, the German parliament, or Bundestag, had rejected a motion put forward by the Greens to ensure "local Afghan staff were welcomed generously." The coalition parties and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) voted against the motion, which was supported by the Left Party. The FDP abstained.

Afghanistan | Taliban fighters
Governments have been left scrambling after Taliban fighters overran the country within weeksImage: Str/XinHua/dpa/picture alliance

Strack-Zimmermann from the FDP now accuses of Foreign Minister Maas of "being primarily concerned with pictures" of an "exodus" in the debate about whether to rescue local Afghans and not acting adequately. "It is a complete failure," she told DW.  

The floods of mid-July and the climate crisis had overshadowed the German debate about what to do about the Afghans who helped the army and are now under threat. But the triumphant advance of the Taliban, calls for help from Afghans on the ground, members of the Bundeswehr and the media brought the subject back into focus. About 1,800 have made it to Germany since the Bundeswehr withdrew from Afghanistan but thousands more are desperately waiting for a signal of hope. 

FDP, Left Party and Green politicians have all accused the coalition government of lacking a plan and acting too hesitantly. It took until this Saturday for CDU leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet call for Germany to rescue former Bundeswehr employees.

"Afghans who were courageous enough to help the Bundeswehr now have to be saved," he said at a CDU event in western Germany.

Imminent danger

On the same day, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also offered a similar signal, saying that the situation had "developed very dynamically" and was coming to a head. "We will support the Foreign Ministry in repatriating German nationals and others who need to be protected." 

The debate this weekend in Germany has not only been about evacuating Germans and Afghans; there has also been widespread speculation about the growing number of refugees coming to Germany and the European Union. "One has to expect people to be moving and also to come to Europe," Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

Against a backdrop of fear that the Taliban could reinstate a reign of terror, the CDU's Norbert Röttgen, chair of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, called for the West to intervene and said explicitly that the Bundeswehr should get involved in an offensive against the Islamist militants.

Heiko Maas speaks about the situation in Afghanistan
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said measures would be taken to ensure the safety of embassy staffImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

'We're staying'

Even if the Bundeswehr does fly out Germans and Afghans who worked for the German government, staff from international aid organizations will remain. "We still have about 250 local staff members," Simone Pott, spokesperson for German NGO Welthungerhilfe, told DW. She said that none of them had been threatened so far and that they wanted "to continue living in the country with their families."

The humanitarian NGO Caritas International, whose Afghan office is led by the German Stefan Recker, who has been in the country for some time, told DW that it had currently two to three dozen Afghan employees and one Italian staff member. "We're staying," said Recker in a number of interviews this weekend. "A Taliban government will also need to develop aid organizations."

This article has been translated from German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C