Germany’s Withdrawal from Afghanistan puts its Security Policy Back at Square One
Germany and the EU should stick to their guns and avoid armed conflict at all cost.
On 29 June 2021, a press release announcing that the last German soldiers were leaving Afghanistan coincided with the German team leaving the confusingly named EURO 2020 tournament at the hands of the English. The following day’s postmortem of the football team’s earlier than expected return home took up much more space in the news than the Bundeswehr’s much-later than expected return from Central Asia. This is a shame for more reasons than one. While Germany’s football team will surely recover by the time of next year’s World Cup in Qatar, Germany’s and by extension Europe’s security policy has been changed forever by the mission in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was the longest and deadliest campaign in Germany’s post-war history. In 2001, Germany decided to send troops to Afghanistan as part of the international coalition to defeat the Taliban. This was only two years after Germany’s first military operation after the Second World War had started with a bang. In May 1999, a pacifist member of the Green party had thrown a paint container at Joschka Fischer, the country’s Foreign Minister at the time and a member of the Green party, that injured his ear drum just as the party was deliberating over whether to accede to the bombing of Serbia over its actions in Kosovo.
Now after 20 years, the lessons to be drawn from Germany’s experience in Afghanistan will determine the near and mid-term future of the European Union as a geopolitical force. However, to be clear, although Germany had the second largest troop contingent, their withdrawal does not change the fate of Afghanistan. It is the American troop withdrawal that is set to pave the way for the Taliban to extend their rule from the countryside and overrun the towns as well. What the U.S. decision to withdraw brings home to Berlin as much as to Brussels is that the U.S., irrespective of who sits in the White House, is primarily focused on China as its main challenge to a global order conducive to U.S. interests and values. In turn, Washington appears less inclined to take the lead in political and security crises of a second order that do not directly impact the homeland. Nicaragua and Guatemala matter more than Northern Iraq or Georgia.
Therefore, the ring of crises surrounding the European Union from Libya and the Sahel over Syria and the Caucasus to Ukraine and Belarus will require a response led by the European Union and its strongest members states. And while there are in fact a host of initiatives to deal with these neighboring regions, from the Eastern Partnership to the Khartoum Process to peace conferences for almost all the conflicts in the vicinity (Syria, Libya, Ukraine), the unfortunate reality is that influence in these theaters also depends on something the EU is much less willing to give than cash or diplomatic clout: boots on the ground or at least the credible threat to send them. In short, if the U.S. is not willing to fight, the EU must decide where and when to do so herself.
Germany, again, is the key here. After Brexit, France is the only remaining EU member state with a well-established tradition and eagerness to send its soldiers into missions beyond its and the EU’s borders. Under the leadership of Boris Johnson, a former newspaper pundit with strong populist leanings, the UK is not only far removed from the days of the St Malo Declaration but cannot be relied upon to act in unison with the EU in security matters. The one German institution that has been impacted the most is the Bundeswehr. Over the last 20 years, the army transformed from one built to defend Germany’s territory in a ground attack from the Warsaw Pact states, to one with plentiful experience in counterinsurgency warfare in very difficult terrain. Altogether 160.000 German soldiers served in Afghanistan. Crucially, however, the German public and political discourse have not followed suit.
It was only a bit more than a decade ago that newspaper columns were filled with semantic discussions on the difference between war and a war-like state of affairs, which was the German Ministry of Defence’s official description of the situation in Afghanistan. At the same time, a gradual shift occurred from describing Germany’s mission in Afghanistan as bent on promoting and safeguarding a transition to a liberal democratic system and society towards an effort to prevent the Taliban from returning to power. The early years of the ISAF mission were accompanied by debates over novel integrated formats of development and security and the expansion of new-found freedoms for Afghan society, especially for women and girls. In addition to training the local police, Germany funded and organized training schemes for young Afghans to equip them with the know-how to build a functioning state that delivered good governance to its citizens. (Full disclosure: the author took part in one of these training schemes until funding ceased a decade ago.) In the last couple of years, Afghanistan increasingly disappeared from view, supplanted by the war in Syria, the Russian annexation of Crimea and finally the Covid-19 pandemic, to the point that many Germans were not even aware anymore that Bundeswehr soldiers continued to patrol in Mazar-i-Sharif.
And this lack of interest is crucial when looking ahead. Arguably the most important take-away from reports about the German troop withdrawal are the victims: 59 German soldiers lost their lives since 2002, making this the Bundeswehr’s deadliest operation since its founding in 1955. There is no clearer proof that Germany has become a decidedly post-heroic society than the fact that most Germans consider this too high a price to pay. Hence, a common complaint throughout the ISAF years was that the German mission was ineffective since their priority lay on protecting themselves and not the Afghans. Contemporary missions like the German contribution to the French-led MINUSMA in Mali show that nothing much has changed as that mission only reaches the public consciousness when German soldiers get injured.
Thus, the main lesson from the successive missions in Afghanistan both for Germany and the EU is this: stick to your guns and avoid military engagement beyond the immediate vicinity. The old and much-derided adage of the European Union as a civilian power may be true after all. And while their once-bright prospects to supplant Angela Merkel in September’s general election are fading, it is once again the German Greens that are the most clear-eyed and honest about what being a civilian power entails. When Robert Habeck, co-party leader, visited Ukraine in May, he broke rank with the German foreign policy consensus by proposing to send defensive weapons to Ukraine. For this is the unpalatable but no less true essence of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy: if fighting cannot be avoided, then have somebody else fight and die for your interests.
Dr. Ole Frahm is a Berlin-based political scientist and member of the School of Economics and Political Science at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.
A German version of this Opinion piece was recently published in the Austrian "Die Presse".
Image: Ninara via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)