A deployment focused on reconstruction turned into war: The Bundeswehr has left Afghanistan after 20 years. Deutsche Welle asked all parties in parliament to take stock.
It all began with a sentence for the history books: On September 12, 2001, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said he had assured US President George W. Bush of “unrestricted — I emphasize: unrestricted — solidarity.”
Germany sided with its most important ally after the devastating 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, and later assumed responsibility in Afghanistan during the US-led war on terror.
The German defense minister at the time, Peter Struck, found a soundbyte-friendly formulation in December 2002, when he said Germany’s security was being protected along the Hindu Kush mountain range that stretches across Afghanistan: “Germany is safer when we and our allies fight international terrorism at its roots, and by military, as well as other, means.”
The military mission, which began under a Social Democratic-Green federal government and ended under a grand coalition of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been the Bundeswehr’s most expensive and bloodiest out-of-area mission to date. By the end of 2020, the Bundeswehr’s deployment had cost German taxpayers about €12.5 billion ($15 billionn). In total, the German government is estimated to have spent more than €18 billion on its Afghanistan mission since 2002.
As part of the unconditional withdrawal of all US-led NATO troops, the last German soldiers have now left Afghanistan. The Bundeswehr requires parliamentary mandates for its missions. For two decades, a large majority of members of parliament supported the deployment, while approval rates among the population rapidly declined.
DW asked parliamentarians with expertise in foreign affairs and defense to take stock.
Soldiers ‘can be proud of themselves”
“It was right to participate” in the Afghanistan mission, said Henning Otte, the defense policy spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Otte lauded the 160,000 German soldiers who have been stationed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, many of them serving more than once: “The Bundeswehr deployed professionally in action. It has rendered an important service to our country and our alliance partners. The mission is a success because Afghanistan today offers no retreat for international terror. The soldiers of the Bundeswehr can be proud of themselves. ”
State-building ‘is proving more difficult than initially hoped’
Siemtje Möller, the defense policy spokeswoman for the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, had a similar stance: “Militarily, the mission was successful. It has succeeded in ensuring that Afghanistan no longer poses an international terror threat.”
Möller sees problems, however, when it comes to state-building, which “is proving more difficult than initially hoped. It remains a task for the international community to accompany Afghanistan on this path.” She advocates for a “careful review” of the mission by a Bundestag commission of inquiry.
The major goals ‘have not been achieved’
Tobias Lindner, the defense policy spokesman for the Greens, also calls for a transparent evaluation of the mission in Afghanistan. “Certainly, there are regions in the country today where the situation is better compared to 2001 under Taliban rule,” he said. “At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the major goals — peace in Afghanistan and stable state structures — have not been achieved.”
The Green defense politician accuses the German government of relying on a predominantly military engagement for far too long. “For future missions, much consideration should be given in advance to which goals seem realistically achievable by which means and, above all, which timeline.”
‘We need an investigation’
Sevim Dagdelen, the foreign policy spokeswoman for the Left party in the Bundestag, sees NATO facing defeat in Afghanistan. Her party is campaigning for Germany to leave the Western defense alliance. “It is unforgivable that this NATO war has cost the lives of thousands of Afghan civilians,” she said. “We need an investigation into NATO’s war crimes in Afghanistan.”
The Left party has voted against the deployment of the Bundeswehr right from the start: “The reasons for going to war given by the German government, like defending Germany’s security and protecting women’s rights, were simply lies to justify participation in NATO’s war for geopolitical motives. The 59 Bundeswehr soldiers killed in Afghanistan gave their lives for a senseless war adventure.”
‘You can’t have a more complete failure”
Rüdiger Lucassen, the defense policy spokesman for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, also believes that the US-led mission in Afghanistan was a complete failure: “The country is not stable, it is not secure, and also not significantly more developed economically. The German government’s ludicrous additional goals, such as democratization along Western lines, have certainly not succeeded. And even the minimum goal of Afghanistan not being a safe haven for terrorist groups any more is not guaranteed. You can’t have a more complete failure.”
The former Bundeswehr soldier recommends avoiding “so-called peace missions” in the future. State-building is a decadeslong task, he said: “Western democracies don’t have the staying power to bear the risks of military engagement for generations.”
People approached ‘nation-building very naively’
Bijan Djir-Sarai, the foreign policy spokesman for the liberal FDP, prefers not to speak of success or failure. “On the one hand, the terrorist al-Qaida group was successfully tackled,” he said. “On the other hand, prospects may have improved for the Afghan people during this 20-year mission, but putting sustainable state structures in place has has presented NATO member states with major challenges which remain unresolved.”
Djir-Saraj also called for a thorough review of the past 20 years, saying: “People approached the issue of nation-building very naively and certainly misjudged the Taliban, who enjoyed ever greater support among certain parts of the rural population. I think the lessons learned will be particularly relevant to our mission in Mali.”