Since 2002, Germany has contributed considerable civilian and military resources to promoting stabilization and sustainable development in Afghanistan. It has repeatedly renewed the political mandate for its engagement. In January 2011, the German Bundestag once again debated its strategy in Afghanistan. It did so despite enormous public pressure to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan - a country which appears too far away and too unimportant to see German soldiers die in “war-like” combat.
One can sense the paralyzing helplessness and uncertainty of a German society that vehemently searches for an answer to the question of whether Germany is doing the right thing with its commitment in Afghanistan. The public insecurity is reflected by the majority of Germans, which reject the engagement in Afghanistan. The federal government, however, has consistently refused to this day to hold a broad public debate on the role and responsibility of Germany in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan? This country seems too distant and strange. The conflict appears to be unimportant and too complex to justify the deaths of 45 German soldiers and high financial support. Even in its tenth year, the German public still discusses the reasons why Germany should play a part, while politicians continuously try to divert the discussion to a debate about when to end it. Driven by the failure of never having thoroughly explained the role and importance of Germany's engagement in Afghanistan to the German public, the government is trying to channel public pressure by announcing vague withdrawal corridors.
Even in the fifth year of duty, Chancellor Angela Merkel refuses to lead a public debate on Afghanistan. To get out as quickly as possible seems to be the motto. Is this to be understood as a “transition of responsibility“? A withdrawal of German soldiers is first on the political wish list and due to domestic political pressure it is likely to happen soon.
Problem solved? Can't we lean back and ignore the legitimacy debate – the question of “Why?” – in favor of answering the “When?” Not at all! Afghanistan is too complex; the lines of conflict are too diverse for this to be a place for quick results. The country will remain on the German foreign and development policy agenda.
This year alone, around 450 million Euros will be invested through Germany's Development Initiative – from taxpayers' money. German soldiers and development experts continue to put their life at risk in order to fulfill their duty. The need for a political and societal debate and a commitment to answer the "Why?" has never been greater. Who wants to blame a public that rejects a commitment, which has never been politically elucidated? Instead of diverting, avoiding and ignoring the recurring probing question: "Why are we even there?" German politicians have to encourage, explain and foster a much-needed broad societal debate on the role and responsibility of the German involvement in Afghanistan. If the transition process towards greater Afghan responsibility should not end in bare cynicism, the country must be equipped now with all available means. Now more than ever, Afghanistan needs a strong civil partnership.
But how does one explain the German involvement in Afghanistan? The political declaration that has been used since the beginning is the historic statement by former Defense Minister Peter Struck, Germany's security is being defended at the Hindukush. The statement to this day symbolizes the naiveté of the hoped-for short, clean military operation. Since then, the German commitment has not been put on a broader argumentative basis.
This mantra is not sufficient to legitimize German involvement, which in its scope and effort has gone through a typical mission creep. The ISAF mission (and Germany's civilian contribution through development cooperation) is neither a simple act of national defense, nor the expected short and clean military strike, that people still believed in in the winter of 2002. The Bundeswehr and the German development cooperation in Afghanistan are fighting and working elsewhere. Their commitment is directed against an intangible enemy. They are fighting for social development, human rights and decent living conditions, infrastructure and health care. They fight (or are fighting) discrimination against women and a high infant mortality. Yet, they ensure the success of this commitment, by force of arms.
"Nothing is good in Afghanistan" as Margot Kässmann, former EKD Council Chairperson and a prominent figure in the debate once stated, but a lot is on the right track. When we turn our attention to Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, one is confronted with an eroding security situation, resurgent warlords and a thriving opium trade. The country's problems are not confined to the Taliban. Nonetheless, one has to acknowledge that today seven million students are going to school (6 million more than in 2001), over 150,000 new teachers were hired (30% of them women) and 80% of the population now has access to basic health services. The citizens of Kabul and Herat now have – thanks to German development cooperation – reliable access to drinking water. It is these figures and achievements that determine the future of Afghanistan. The reduction of international troops, the transfer of responsibility to the Afghans and the massive increase in development cooperation can pave the way for a sustainable development in the country.
If Germany aims to follow-through on the responsibility it has taken up, long-term engagement in Afghanistan cannot be done against a mostly depreciative German public. It is essential to resume the protracted political debate on the role and responsibility of Germany in Afghanistan. Politics alone cannot accomplish this. It can, however, foster the debate and encourage the involvement of churches, trade unions, academia and the blogosphere, which can span a broad civil partnership that would ensure the much needed assistance to the Afghan nation in their attempt at civilian reconstruction.
Against the background of the upcoming federal election in 2013, if politicians across party lines fail to deliver political and moral legitimacy to Germany's engagement in Afghanistan a “transfer of responsibility” could quickly turn into an irresponsible escape.
The need for a debate and an answer to the "Why?" of German engagement in Afghanistan has never been greater.
Florian Neutze, b. 1981, is a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs. During his year as a Mercator Fellow he has worked for the Crisis Intervention Team Afghanistan/Pakistan of the German State Development Bank (KfW) and is currently a Consultant to the Development Commissioner and the Director Development of the German Ministry on Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Mazar-i Sharif, Afghanistan. Florian Neutze holds a Masters degree in Politics and Management with a focus on security policy and development cooperation from the University of Konstanz. Previously he has worked for former Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor Frank Walter Steinmeier. Florian Neutze lives in Berlin. The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author.
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This article was written for ad hoc international, the joint biannual journal of the Network for international Affairs (NefiA) and the CSP Network for International Politics and Co-Operation. NefiA is the Alumni network of the Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs as well as the former Postgraduate Program in International Affairs. You can read the entire issue of ad hoc international in the German original: Afghanistan: Persönlich - Positiv -Kritisch.