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Course change in Afghanistan

Nina Niebergall / nrtDecember 12, 2015

In Mazar-i-Sharif, the German defense minister was self-critical. Mistakes have been made and the situation underestimated, she said. The question remains: Can the mistakes be repaired?

Afghanistan Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

"We’re staying," announced Ursula von der Leyen during an inspection of German troops stationed in Camp Shaheen. The defense minister said that Afghanistan's partners had planned the "withdrawal of the international community from Afghanistan too quickly, too ambitiously."

This had also sent the "wrong signal" to the radical Islamic Taliban, she said, who saw the troop withdrawal as their chance to bring down the government. An admission of guilt from which first NATO and later the German government were able to draw the consequences: 12,000 foreign armed forces remain in the country, to train the Afghan army. The German armed forces increased the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan from 850 to 980.

Nearly a year after NATO officially ended its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, the result of the over-hasty pullback appears to be disastrous: an unprecedented level of violence, the highest number of civilian deaths since the begin of the military intervention and a re-strengthened Taliban which once again controls parts of the country. In addition an ailing economy, a hardly existent infrastructure and political elites, who were deeply entangled in corruption and power struggles.

Chancellor Merkel with Afghan President Ghani
Chancelor Merkel shows solidarity with Afghan President GhaniImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

The international community in 2001 was formed in order to free Afghanistan from the Taliban terror regime and to create a “modern, democratic and economically liberal state” reports political scientist Conrad Schetter.

But right from the very beginning the course was false, experts agree. Thomas Ruttig, Co-Director of the independent Think Tanks Afghanistan Analyst Network, argued that after the victory over the Taliban regime chances were missed to integrate the Taliban, who were at that time militarily beaten and politically weakened, into the political system.“

A power vacuum was created, which was filled by those who wanted to block any form of influence in Afghanistan: first from local warlords and later from the Taliban.

A development which also proved fatal for the Germans. In September, hundreds of Taliban fighters seized the provincial capital Kunduz without much resistance from local forces, although they were in the majority. Up until two years ago, German forces had a military camp there.

Conrad Schetter
Conrad Schetter says alliance strategy has changedImage: Conrad Schetter

The failure of Germany in the region, according to Conrad Schetter, was due to the absence of any strategy. "The German armed forces didn’t know until six or seven years ago in what sort of conflict it was operating. For many decision-makers in the military it was decisive to demonstrate loyalty to the alliance. They did not have a wide-ranging plan of what they wanted to achieve in Kunduz. "There was no European, not to mention German, Afghanistan policy.

Instead, the German armed forces operated within local power structures and cooperated with the local elite. Warlords acted as autonomous governors, police, or heads of intelligence – financed by German development funding.

When it became clear to the ISAF alliance in Afghanistan that after early military successes what was needed was more power of endurance, the early goals moved more and more into the background – and with it a comprehensive overall strategy. "One had lost a vision for Afghanistan. Over the years, the strategies of the international community have shrunk together. Whereas 15 years ago it was all about building up a civil society and democracy, then it was restricted later to building up statehood, then the creation of security and in the end just on stability", said Schetter.

Thomas Ruttig
Thomas Ruttig: No one really knows what to doImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Somehow to maneuver out of the situation became the motto. The recipe: The Afghan army should learn how to defend its country. That’s how "Resolute Support Mission" sees it.

Unlike ISAF, the international forces involved in the follow-on mission should not get involved directly in fighting but should train the leadership of the Afghan national security forces, guide and support – including the German armed forces. Now all those involved have to admit that this task is not to be managed in two years. "The Afghan army is not yet far enough that it can take on responsibility," conceded Von der Leyen.

But what should you do when you realize that you have failed? "I believe that it neither helps to pull back the troops, nor to keep the troops there," said Thomas Ruttig. "I believe what is necessary now is to establish peace through negotiations. That’s been neglected for far too long," he stressed.

That’s why Ruttig believes the solution cannot be a military build-up. That’s why the decision by the German government to send a few more soldiers to Afghanistan is ultimately irrelevant. "That is symbolic politics, but actually," he said, "no one knows what can be done right now."