ÜYou don’t like to talk about defeat. For politics, which thrive on the trust of voters in their abilities, this is even more true than in normal life. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that the withdrawal from Afghanistan has not been accompanied by any public debate worth mentioning.
The Bundeswehr stood on the Hindu Kush for almost twenty years. Now it had to pull away without the ambitious goals of the mission being achieved. One would like to know what the government, what the Bundestag (keyword parliamentary army), what the parties have to say about it. Swam over it? Or can we learn something from this failure for the future of German foreign and defense policy?
The latter is supported by the fact that it was not a single mission that failed in Afghanistan, but an entire strategy. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the principle of forward defense applied in the fight against Islamist terrorism. Groups like Al-Qaeda should be placed in their retreats to deter further attacks on Western countries.
With the 2015 refugee crisis at the latest, the aim was to prevent migration by stabilizing countries of origin and transit countries; it plays an important role in the Mali mission today. In Germany, these motifs were often embellished by a general rhetoric of peace and development, but in essence they were shared.
Al-Qaeda leadership persevered
If you look at the Afghanistan mission from this perspective, the results are sobering. Even after the Western intervention, al-Qaeda was able to carry out terrorist attacks all over the world for many years and is still present in Afghanistan today. A study commissioned by the American Congress at the beginning of the year concluded that the organization was weakened overall, but that its leadership was able to hold out in Afghanistan and Pakistan despite military pressure. And a hasty withdrawal could mean that Afghanistan would again pose a direct jihadist threat to America within one and a half to three years.
It doesn’t look much better on the migration issue, even if this was never the main reason for the international deployment in the country. In Germany, Afghans have been one of the largest groups of asylum seekers for years, most recently they were in second place. How can that be? Why is the West not even able to achieve the minimum goals of such missions despite the enormous use of resources? Afghanistan is not the only recent example.
There are no state structures
Despite all the differences between individual interventions, one thing catches the eye: the absence or loss of state structures is difficult to compensate for. The Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan, but it never succeeded in turning the tribal society there into a halfway modern state. In Iraq, after the fall of Saddam, the Americans disbanded the army and then faced sectarian uprisings. In Libya, NATO helped fight Gaddafi, which only threw the country into civil war.
The only halfway successful counterexample is the destruction of the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq, in which Germany was also involved. Here the focus was on narrow military objectives: an air war with powerful allies on the ground who were armed with weapons. In this case the strategy worked. IS lost its territories and its attacks fell noticeably. Only the migratory pressure persists, but this has mainly to do with the messy situation in Syria.
Foreign missions only with a humanitarian primer
These are difficult insights for Germany. As a rule, deployments abroad can only be carried out with us if they have a humanitarian background. The goal of leading societies like the Afghan one into an enlightened future serves to calm one’s conscience, even if it is not the actual reason for war.
Soldiers are not development workers, however, as has now been seen in many places around the world. In Mali, too, the question arises of how a largely African UN force of 13,000 soldiers should secure peace, uphold human rights and protect the cultural heritage, to name just a few goals of the mission, which also applies to the Bundeswehr. In Afghanistan, which is half the size, there were 130,000 foreign soldiers at its height, most of them provided by the world power America, and the mission nevertheless failed.
Above all, foreign missions cannot spare German politicians from dealing with migration and terrorism without blinkers. If the country wants fewer irregular migrants and a lower Islamist threat, then this is primarily a task for (asylum) legislation and the security authorities. The Bundeswehr cannot compensate for the mistakes in refugee policy that have been made in recent years.