On September 3, the German command in northern Afghanistan in the Kundus region ordered an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) air raid on two oil tankers that had, according to intelligence reports, been hijacked by Taliban forces. U.S. bombers carried out the raid destroying the two targets. In the days that followed different numbers of casualties, including civilian victims, were reported. An ISAF fact-finding mission reported 125 dead, among them at least two dozen civilians. The German defense minister initially asserted there were no civilian casualties at all — and then later backtracked. The events of early September in northern Afghanistan have initiated a fierce debate in Germany about the role of German forces in the country — and provoked stiff criticism from Germany’s allies.
Winfried Nachtwei is a Green Party member of the German parliament and a foreign and security policy expert. He talks here with Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Paul Hockenos.
PAUL HOCKENOS: Is it now, since the events of September 3, finally clear to Germans that they are involved in a real war, something the political elite has been reticent to say in plain words?
WINFRIED NACHTWEI: Well, most of our politicians still don’t say that quite so clearly. Yet, it is obvious enough that this military operation [on Sept. 3] was one typical of wartime. An airstrike like this certainly isn’t something that you’d expect in a tactical stabilization operation, which is what the Bundeswehr is supposed to be doing. Indeed, the ISAF mandate is for stabilization and support of the government. The new U.S. policy is to avoid civilian deaths if at all possible. Yet the situation in and around Kundus has deteriorated dramatically since last year alone and the Germans have begun to call for tactical air support. This air raid represents a watershed in the escalation of conflict in the north. In no uncertain terms, there is war in the Kundus province and Germans are part of it.
HOCKENOS: Have these events changed the way Germany is thinking and talking about its role in Afghanistan?
NACHTWEI: First, and positively, the strategy of the major political parties — the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — to keep Afghanistan out of the ongoing election campaign has failed completely. Second, this is the first time that the German public has been confronted with high numbers of causalities. It is the first time in Germany’s postwar history that the Bundeswehr has killed so many enemy combatants. Third, we are confronted with civilian victims, which contravenes international human rights provisions and under the ISAF mandate isn’t supposed to happen. Lastly, the term “exit date” is being talked about — though in different ways — by all of the parties with the exception of the Left Party. This was formerly taboo. Yet there’s absolutely no consensus about when that would be and nobody, with the exception of the Left Party, is talking about an immediate withdrawal. Rather we are considering the conditions for troop withdrawal in the future.
HOCKENOS: And what might those conditions for an eventual withdrawal look like?
NACHTWEI: Let me make it clear: I reject the idea of immediate withdrawal. There are two reasons for this: a complete and sudden withdrawal would simply encourage those whose aim it is to step up violence; at the same time, it would serve to discourage those who want to build up something peaceful and sustainable. I’ve experienced, above all in discussions with German soldiers, that we can’t simply say ‘stay there as long as it takes for the Afghans to deal with the situation themselves.’ When will that be? Five years? 10 years? 20 years? What we need is a timeframe for withdrawal.
Even so, the timeframe for withdrawal itself isn’t the first priority. Rather, what we need are a set of intermediate benchmarks for the civilian reconstruction. Other countries have these, but we don’t. These benchmarks would stipulate that we want to have this or that done by certain dates. This would include making, above all, the Afghan police deployable. These benchmarks should be ambitious and verifiable, but also doable. This is the necessary prerequisite for an exit timeframe. That said, in terms of complete withdrawal I would say we’re talking about a couple of years or so, maybe 2-4 years.
HOCKENOS: Why haven’t the Germans already set these kinds of benchmarks when other countries have?
NACHTWEI: That’s because there simply hasn’t been the same kind of pressure as a result of high casualties that other countries like Great Britain, the United States, and Canada have had. In Germany, so far, it’s just been “business as usual.” In the north, with the German soldiers are, they’ve been doing things like getting an electricity grid up and running. This is good, of course, but there aren’t benchmarks for these kinds of projects. Moreover, it simply isn’t clear to the German government that the mission in Afghanistan is by far the biggest foreign policy and security mission that it has ever had, in terms of complexity, number victims, everything.
HOCKENOS: Earlier in the week Chancellor Merkel issued an official statement to the Bundestag on Afghanistan. Did it break any new ground?
NACHTWEI: Yes, some, and it was high time that it did. Until now, Afghanistan was never addressed by the chancellor so directly. Thus, it was important that in the very last days of this legislative term that the chancellor finally made the Afghanistan mission into Germany’s highest priority. Before this administration had always kept a real distance from the issue, as if it didn’t really have anything to do with Afghanistan. There was a hands-off policy, like the issue was contaminated. So her acknowledging this fact is critical, even if much too late.
But what she didn’t talk about, after nearly eight years of our engagement in Afghanistan, is that we still don’t have an independent, self-critical evaluation of where we stand, of what we have accomplished, or where the mistakes were made. I know from the red-green years in government [Social Democrat-Green coalition of 1998-2005] of the huge mistakes we made, and what we underestimated. Take, for example, the building up of the police force, which has taken much more time because of the violence that we failed to predict. We’re still just using pretty words and phrases when what we need are facts — real, accurate information about what is happening on the ground.
HOCKENOS: The September 3 airstrike and the casualties provoked harsh reactions from several of the allies, first and foremost the United States. Many Germans were surprised how quickly and harshly the Americans criticized Germany.
NACHTWEI: Yes, many people here in Germany were a bit up offended that military protocol wasn’t respected. Usually allies on the front don’t criticize one another in public. But, to tell you the truth, I’m pleased that there’s finally some hubbub in the shop. Over the past couple of years there have been a number of controversial issues that were simply papered over by a vague verbal consensus. Now we’re finally debating these matters in the open.
HOCKENOS: In general, what is your take on the Obama administration’s policies in Afghanistan?
NACHTWEI: I’m greatly relieved to see the changes that the Obama administration has made to U.S. policy in Afghanistan. It seems that the United States has finally recognized the dimensions of this problem, much more so than some of its closest allies. There’s been a change of strategy that includes regional deployments, and much more work at the local level. There’s a much greater effort to avoid civilian casualties, even if it means greater risk to the allies. This is one reason the Germans’ call for an airstrike and the causalities have made such a big splash. The Greens have been arguing for these kinds of strategy changes in Afghanistan for several years now, and it’s finally happening. So there’s another chance now. Quite honestly, I don’t know if it isn’t already too late. But I see a shimmer of hope and we have to use this chance because the alternatives are catastrophic.