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Germany’s ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan

A German soldier sights in a Barrett M82A1 rifle on a range in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
"Strategic patience" is the name of the game. Source: Getty

The next airplane bound for Kabul is scheduled to take off from Halle-Leipzig airport on Monday. On board will be rejected asylum seekers. The German government apparently considers Afghanistan a safe destination for deportations – despite a precarious security situation and fierce resistance from humanitarian organizations.

Since December 2016, 188 asylum seekers have been quietly deported to Afghanistan, even though the conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban is escalating. Authorities have been keeping their plans for departures secret because they fear protests. Though nothing has been confirmed officially, it seems clear that the German government and states want the deportations to continue. Horst Seehofer, the new interior minister, is increasing the pressure to deport failed asylum seekers, which has long been part of his platform.

Yet the debate about deportations to Afghanistan is getting tougher. Week after week, Kabul is shaken by attacks, and the numbers of victims keep rising. Almost 17 years after Western troops arrived, stability and peace remain elusive. The German government this week extended the deployment of Germany’s armed forces in Afghanistan another year, with the mission now focusing on combating the causes of migration. The number of soldiers dispatched will increase from 980 to 1,300, which would make it the second-largest force behind the United States (see graphic below).

“With regard to the duration of the mandate and the prospect for withdrawal, the German government is flying blind.”

Tobias Lindner, Green party defense policy spokesperson

“We’re doing this so that the trainers can actually train the military there and don’t just sit in the barracks because of the security situation,” said Johann Wadephul, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the party’s deputy parliamentary leader for foreign and defense policy. “The goal is still to enable the security forces to control the country.”

Afghanistan is still a long way from that. The central government’s sovereignty extends only to individual parts of the country. Many experts regard President Ashraf Ghani as more like the mayor of Kabul than the head of the whole state. Politicians in Germany’s coalition government believe this cynicism is excessive, noting that the government is withstanding the Taliban’s terror campaign and that it controls 60 percent of the country.

Yet even in Berlin, no one wants to specify how much longer the German armed forces’ mission in Afghanistan will continue. “We need strategic patience in Afghanistan. We can’t yet foresee how long it will last,” Fritz Felgentreu, the defense policy spokesperson for Germany’s Social Democratic Party, told Handelsblatt. Markus Potzel, the German government’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, also likes to talk about “strategic patience.”

23 p14 Troops in Afgahnistan-01

The German attitude represents a departure from the approach of former US president Barack Obama, who had attempted, by naming a specific date for withdrawal, to increase pressure on the Afghan government and speed up the creation of independent state structures, a strategy that is considered to have failed disastrously. US President Donald Trump reluctantly increased America’s own troop commitment again last year.

Germany will soon have the second-largest military contingent there after the United States. “The setback in Afghanistan came about because of the near-withdrawal of the Americans under Obama,” said Norbert Röttgen, a Christian Democrat and chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, adding that this mistake now needed to be rectified. When 100,000 Western soldiers left the country all at once in 2014 and 2015, the loss of their purchasing power dealt a heavy blow to the economy, according to a report on the situation by the German government. Additionally, the extremist Taliban took advantage of this opportunity to recapture some areas.

A withdrawal will only be considered once the conditions for a stable and secure Afghanistan have been fulfilled. In Mr. Potzel’s opinion, this includes “a political solution” to the conflict with the Taliban, an “independent economy” and “success in combating the causes of flight.” Germany currently provides €500 million ($617 million) in development and military aid to Afghanistan every year in addition to the cost of German soldiers. This is not expected to change in the foreseeable future.

Almost all experts agree with Mr. Potzel that there can only be a political solution for Afghanistan. Even though it has shocked in some quarters, the offer that President Ghani has made to negotiate with the Taliban is a first step in this process. It’s tricky because geopolitical interests are also at play in Afghanistan, with Pakistan and India vying for influence there. But the current strategy just might work, as it is a further attempt to drive a wedge between domestic Islamists and foreign extremists.

An Afghan policeman keeps watch at the site of a blast in Kabul
Aftermath of a March 17 suicide bomb in Kabul. Source: Reuters

Not everything that the West has done to date in Afghanistan has been in vain. Much has improved during the 17 years of international deployment. Life expectancy has risen from 44 to 61 years. Instead of just 1 million, now 8 million children are going to school – although only one-third of them are girls. Average per capita income has increased five-fold to $608 per year. Road networks and electricity grids have been built. And over half – 55 percent – of Afghans have access to clean drinking water.

Having said all that, progress is now stalling thanks to corruption and mismanagement. And that’s to say nothing of the security problems.

The death toll for the Afghan army and police remains huge, with 30 members of the security forces losing their lives each day in the conflict, according to sources close to the coalition government. That makes it all the more important to strengthen the security forces, they add. Following an attack on the embassy quarter of Kabul last year and the German consulate general in Mazar-i-Sharif in 2016, the additional soldiers are also intended to provide better protection for German diplomatic missions.

But German opposition parties are skeptical with regard to the mission there. Tobias Lindner, defense policy spokesperson for the Greens, intends to approve the decision to extend the mandate by a year, but as he also said: “With regard to the duration of the mandate and the prospect for withdrawal, the German government is flying blind.”

Donata Riedel covers politics and defense for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Moritz Koch is a senior foeign policy correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, recently returning from a four-year stint as Washington correspondent.  To contact the authors: riedel@handelsblatt.com, koch@handelsblatt.com.

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