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The Commission of Inquiry on Afghanistan has made interim decisions – interviews

The Commission of Inquiry on Afghanistan has made interim decisions – interviews

Mira Crowe and Alexander Eisel asked questions.

Following the Taliban's rise to power in August 2021 and the dramatic withdrawal of the associated NATO mission, the Bundestag set up a commission to examine the German Bundeswehr's 20-year commitment to Afghanistan. Now this interim evaluation is taking place. What was the most important discovery?

We have failed with the strategic goal of building a long-term democratic understanding of the state based on our model. Nevertheless, there have been successes in Afghanistan in 20 years. A large section of the population has benefited from improvements in education, healthcare and infrastructure. But even after the withdrawal of the military and international partners, it could not be coordinated effectively.

The interim report confirms a fundamental deficit in Western operations in Afghanistan. It says: “Lack of knowledge of the country, understanding of historical cultural conflict or in-depth perception or study of his society and the partner's host country”. What is it about?

Of course, it is preferable that you prepare well for a task, deal with the culture and history of a country and ask questions in advance: What will this international partnership actually look like on site? What do you want to accomplish together? That did not happen in Afghanistan. But: the starting point was dramatic. After the attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, events accelerated. Acting very quickly on the part of the Americans is important and out of the question. Due to this shock this hasty action resulted in many defects and many problems because one could not prepare accordingly.

However, in 20 years of operation, there were enough points that could have been corrected.

That is the important thing. Given this starting point, it is understandable that the fight against terrorism went into Afghanistan with insufficient preparation. But over 20 years the task has often changed: at one point the fight against terrorism turned into infrastructure expansion, then state-building and so on. It is precisely at these points that a self-critical inventory, error analysis, and error culture are missing: What can we actually do? What do we want? What can we do on our own in Afghanistan? What can we do with other partners? What did we succeed and what did we not succeed?

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According to the interim report, cooperation with international partners has not been successful, at least in phases. What is it about?

The crucial point is the heavy reliance on America at every stage. The Americans were operating on the ground with a completely different military force and with completely different financial obligations. In 20 years there are 80 countries in Afghanistan – none of them on par with the US. That was a problem because Germany could not assume a truly independent role, forcing one to analyze errors and take critical inventory.

Could this bias also explain the failure of the network approach, another point of criticism in the Interim Report?

I wouldn't say that, other structural issues are at the fore. When the Study Group started its work, I assumed that the main focus would be on the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence. But the Ministries of Economy, Finance, Education and Development Cooperation are also involved, at least indirectly. Each represented their own political focus with good quality, here in Berlin and in Afghanistan, for example collaborating with NGOs or the military. But the composition for a situational film is not sufficiently done here or in Afghanistan.

What should be changed?

This will be an exciting question for the second phase of our work, which we have just begun. What lessons are you taking from this and how are you responding to them organizationally? In Germany we have a very strong sectoral policy. Ministers function independently in their respective departments. Can you still find a way – for example a committee, a committee in parliament, with a range of ideas – that forces everyone involved to work more closely together on the one hand, and on the other hand, to give parliament a better picture of the situation? Ultimately, Parliament must always decide not only on military operations but also on the funding of all departments working on the ground.

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Keyword: Central Security Council.

This is a variation presented by experts and party representatives who were on site and heard from us. But not the same mentality. There is a Federal Security Council, a recommendation to further develop it. However, we must be careful not to understand a National Security Council as we know it from the United States. The system there gives the President quite different opportunities to work with such a group than here.

The UN will discuss how they can manage their relations with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in a coordinated and structured manner. A conference organized by Afghanistan is also taking place in Doha this week. The Federal Republic has operated in the country for 20 years – what responsibility does Germany and its international partners have for Afghanistan today?

A big responsibility, still. Germany also entered the country with the aim of achieving something structurally positive for the people beyond the fight against terrorism. We have an obligation to continue helping the people in Afghanistan. It's a balancing act because we don't want to work with this Taliban regime that is persecuting its own people. You have to find ways to help the locals who would otherwise starve and freeze. Humanitarian aid is the order of the day.

A major issue has always been the roughly 12,000 so-called local workers who are at risk of being discovered by the Taliban. How is their situation now?

It is not the task of the NCT Commission to deal with this current situation. Of course, these people play a big role in the Bundestag. Three-quarters of the affected people were allowed to leave the country. A good 10,000 people still have an ambiguous situation. On what basis would you like to visit us? How can we track who they worked for and when? Many have no papers or may have already moved to a neighboring country. There are also security concerns and censorship: who is actually coming? The procedures are understandable, but it takes too long and people have to live with uncertainty for too long, which is why there is anger in the Bundestag.

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The second major Bundeswehr deployment in Mali ended last year. Could there be a parallel between the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the MINUMSA mission?

Afghanistan cannot be compared one-to-one with other operational areas. Circumstances are very special and the timing and scope of the commitment is unique. Nevertheless, the question of what Mali can learn from Afghanistan played a role in the Bundestag. An important point is that we again saw a bias. This time by the French, who had a different military strength. As for Mali, the decision was quickly made that our commitment would not be a good thing without the French and the government did not want them there.

They demand greater involvement in global crises and conflicts. The reputation of the West is now highly tarnished in the Global South, and new allies such as the Russian Wagner Group are gaining prominence. How can Germany better play an independent role in the future?

You should be careful with this equation: West. For decades, Western countries were on par with America, and many countries wanted to orient themselves to America, in its social model, in its economic and military power. It's over. Not just the Global South – see BRICS – many countries are asking themselves who can be good partners in their interests. The answer is no longer necessarily America or the West, but it can also be Russia or China – but fortunately it is also often Germany. While the Federal Republic has a good reputation, especially in the Middle East and large parts of Africa, we do not have the same colonial history as the British and French. And we don't go to other countries with the self-evident authority of Americans. This builds trust and many see us as a very reliable, trustworthy and serious partner. Beyond fundamental restructuring, which is naturally not directed toward the West and the United States, Germany can play an important role in the future.