As Germany withdraws its forces from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, what was achieved – and what will remain?
Six months and just a "limited mandate", as former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called it – this was the first resolution on the deployment of German military forces to Afghanistan passed by a large majority (581:35) of the German parliament. The approval of the resolution followed Schroeder’s declaration of "unrestricted solidarity with the United States of America" immediately after the attacks of 11 September 2001.
The six-month timeline turned into almost 20 years, for a mission that began as a peacekeeping mission, evolved after a few years into a combat mission, and ended as an education and training mission for Afghan security forces.
The withdrawal of all German soldiers is now scheduled for the coming weeks. The last police trainers already left the country in early May.
Although a comprehensive evaluation of the mission is still pending and scheduled for the fall of this year, we can already say that the results of the mission are mixed at best, and quite sobering.
59 German soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001, more than two-thirds of them as a result of external causes, suicide attacks, or booby traps and mines while on patrol. At times, more than 5,000 servicemen and women were stationed in Afghanistan. It was only in March 2021 that the mandate and the upper limit of the German contingent were extended again for another ten months and for up to 1,300 servicemen and women by the German parliament, albeit with a significantly smaller number of votes (358:160).
The German public and not least the German parliament are demanding profound answers to the question of what lasting effects the deployment will leave behind.
The German contingent formed the second largest unit after the United States in the "Resolute Support" mission, which currently still comprises 9,600 NATO soldiers. The abrupt end of the mission is the result of an agreement bilaterally negotiated between the U.S. and the Taliban movement on 29 February 2020. It foresaw, amongst other objectives such as conducting Intra-Afghan negotiations, the withdrawal of U.S. troops (and thus inevitably all NATO troops) by 31 May 2021. Later, U.S. President Biden changed the deadline to the symbolic date of 11 September 2021, and finally moved it forward to the equally symbolic date of 4 July 2021, the U.S. Independence Day.
The reason given by the U.S. for postponing the withdrawal date was the continuing, and even intensifying level of violent attacks in Afghanistan. These targeted state and religious minority institutions, public figures including numerous journalists, civil society, and even dozens of children at a girls' school, as happened in an attack by ISIS in early May 2021. According to a report provided by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 573 people died and more than 1,200 were injured during the first three months of 2021, approximately 30 per cent more than during the same period in 2020.
In the face of this continued violence, what has the military mission achieved? What will remain once the withdrawal is completed?
The German public and not least the German parliament are demanding profound answers to the question of what lasting effects the deployment will leave behind, in light of the casualties and numerous wounded as well as costs of more than €12.5 billion.
The German military mission is often justified by referring to visible progress in education (especially for young women and girls), to increased life expectancy, and to a number of economic and social development and infrastructure projects, as well as the overall consolidation of state institutions and the strengthening of the security sector.
However, even on those points, assessments are already mixed. In other areas, it is much harder to defend the mission. Poppy production, for instance, has strongly increased, corruption is still a challenge to the rule of law, the effects of climate change have not been mitigated, and public security is far from being guaranteed throughout the country.
Moreover, the political discord surrounding the 2019 presidential election and the subsequent months-long deadlock in the country's leadership continues to reverberate to this day. This highlights deep-rooted political frictions between Afghanistan's powerful interest groups, many of them shaped by their ethnic or religious backgrounds.
All states, including those considered important and/or problematic by the Afghan parties, have expressed their firm commitment to support Afghanistan in its efforts to achieve lasting peace.
These ongoing conflicts also influence the intra-Afghan negotiations between the delegations of the Islamic Republic and the Taliban movement, which are supposed to cement lasting peace in a unified Afghanistan. The negotiations have not progressed to an extent where Afghan people could set aside worries about further bloodshed, perhaps even an unrelenting civil war, after the withdrawal of foreign security forces. It seems that on both sides of the negotiations, there are not only two delegations negotiating with one another but different stakeholder groups trying to protect their own interests.
Window of opportunity
The window of opportunity for an agreement is narrow, but the prospect is not lost. The parties involved will come to realise that neither side will win if – instead of looking for compromises for a common future – each side puts its own interests above those of all others. Not only could whatever positive developments that have been achieved fall apart, but the international community's confidence in investing further in the peace process could dwindle.
That has not happened yet. All states, including those considered important and/or problematic by the Afghan parties, have expressed their firm commitment to support Afghanistan in its efforts to achieve lasting peace. US$3.3 billion were pledged at the November 2020 international donor conference in Geneva for the first year of the four-year cycle through 2024, coupled with an offer to provide the same amount in each of the three subsequent years, provided the Afghan parties make discernible progress toward lasting peace. Germany bears a considerable part of this amount, intending to contribute €430 million annually for civilian projects.
There is no doubt: The pressure on negotiating parties to agree on a common line for state development and on a lasting ceasefire, spurred by the withdrawal announcement, carries a risk of failure. Yet, the glimpse into a possible abyss reveals a unique opportunity for constructive, focused, and results-oriented negotiations. If they succeed, the timing of the withdrawal of foreign troops will have been right and, in retrospect, the deployment of them in Afghanistan will not have been in vain.
These points are further explored in an interview with Hans-Joachim Giessmann on NDR radio (in German) available here.
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