Much of the soul-searching in Europe and the United States over Afghanistan these days repeats one of the biggest mistakes of the past 20 years: It sidelines the role of Afghans. Germany’s contribution to the weal and woe of the past two decades of Afghan history was a secondary part at best to a US-led tipping of scales that were ultimately held by competing groups of Afghans themselves.
This reality must not be abused by German decision-makers to paint the self-serving, fatalistic caricature of having had no meaningful choices at all: We need to reckon with our mistakes just like our British, Canadian, Norwegian, and American partners have begun to do much earlier. Still, it helps to start with an appreciation of the realities on the ground.
Plenty of Afghan Owners
It was Afghans who led the fight to build a state that would serve the people: hopeful, competent, hard-working, often young professionals rebuilt parts of a modern government and administration, a healthcare and education system, and also an army and a police force that suffered horrific casualties and still kept fighting until its superiors folded.
It was also Afghans who undermined and ultimately destroyed that quest for a better life for their compatriots, even as many of them claimed to seek the opposite: the warlords, militia commanders, and powerbrokers deftly played the system of internationally-supplied carrots (huge and easy to pocket) and sticks (small or easy to redirect) to protect and enhance their own power, to line their pockets, and to maintain impunity for their continuing crimes. Some became senior government officials and members of local and national parliaments, others remained outside the formal power structure. United by their infighting with each other and the various extremist groups, their corruption, nepotism, and violent abuse of power made it impossible for the various post-2001 governments to earn the trust and support of the Afghan population.
US Leadership: Tipping Both Sides of the Scale
Outsiders, led by the US as the largest actor by far that called the international shots, sought to tip the balance in favor of two goals — counterterrorism and supporting Afghan state-building against the Taliban insurgency. The Americans took far too long to understand the inherent conflict. While eradicating the threat of international terrorism from Afghan soil was probably achievable, and largely achieved, by dispersing Al Qaeda in the first year or two after 9 – 11, it was the fateful misunderstanding that the Taliban were essentially the same as Al Qaeda that set the US up for failure. It allowed a vicious and ultimately self-defeating “hunt” for suspected “Taliban” to sideline the project of supporting a legitimate and sustainable political order in Afghanistan, even after the latter attracted ever-greater US investment as Washington realized that its partners in Kabul were out-governed by the Taliban wherever the latter seized ground.
Along with bombs and bullets, US and allied taxpayers also injected massive amounts of cash into the poor Afghan economy. The largest part of that cash did not go into purposeful stabilization or development projects, let alone into the government budget. The largest part of it paid for the enormous enabling effort for exercising leverage in a foreign country in the first place: to rent land for bases, to pay for construction, to truck fuel and food cross-country, to buy information and the service of militias or guards.
Partly by accident or negligence, partly by design to secure the support of those warlords and powerbrokers who claimed to be able to deliver the heads of suspected Al Qaeda or Taliban operatives, or simply to keep some international outpost supplied and safe, plenty of that money went to the latter group of Afghans: the powerbrokers, warlords, and commanders who were the worst enemies of an effective government at any level of centralization or sophistication, of democracy and the rule of law, even as many of them played temporary roles in that government.
In effect, contrary to the earnest intentions of many international policymakers, the US and its partners did not export any kind of Western model of a state — a consolidated, administrative state based on taxation and a monopoly of legitimate violence. On the contrary, by far the most potent forms of outside leverage fueled the fragmentation rather than the consolidation of power, whether the violent, financial, or cognitive kind: by paying massive bounties for where to find supposed Taliban to kill or capture, by relying on semi-criminal procurement empires to sustain their military, intelligence, and development presence across the country, and even — in comparatively minor, but not irrelevant part — by making it much easier to run an NGO than to work for the civil service.
In fact, it is stunning to see how much progress was made despite these massive obstacles in terms of health care, education, and also military effectiveness, until the political leadership collapsed in the wake of former US President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban.
The Good Germans?
What role did Germany play in this context? In 2001, Germany lacked every important capability at scale, from self-sufficient expeditionary forces to a diplomatic corps or a development machinery with the skills and the mindset to effectively operate in a place without a real government. It was wholly unable to play the role of equal or even secondary partner to the US, at least until about 2008.
Under these conditions, most of what looks like critical mistakes today were made by US decision-makers with little or no consultation with partners. With regard to those mistakes, America is churning out an impressive amount of self-critical analysis, some of the best of which has come from the congressionally appointed Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The British are engaging in a similar process, and others such as Canada and Norway have long shown the way.
It would be far too lazy, however, to leave all the critical introspection to our allies. Two German chancellors, plenty of ministers of foreign affairs, development, defense, and the interior, as well as hundreds of members of parliament set their own goals, both for what they wanted the Americans to do better and for what they wanted the German contribution to add. In constant negotiations, German diplomats pushed for these goals and implemented them along with civilian experts, soldiers, and police officers in ways that sought to make the German emphasis felt on the ground — an emphasis on education and health, on human rights and the rule of law, and on not wanting anything to do with the dirty business of the Americans, killing suspected terrorists and fueling insurgent mobilization.
It was the open, relatively popular side of an enormously challenging political balancing act. Its flip side was the deployment of elite German special forces to participate in the American hunt for Al Qaeda from the very beginning, in the winter of 2001 – 2002, including the tacit acceptance of massively self-defeating US drone strikes, raids, detentions, and spending practices, and the increasing attempts to grow some teeth, lean into the inevitable risk, and join military counterinsurgency operations in the latter years of ISAF.
Fundamentally Not Convinced
This balancing act reflected that, at its core, Germany was torn about whether or not it bought into the US strategy at all.
On the one hand, the deeply realistic sense of a reunited Germany’s own strategic infancy combined with an element of defense-intellectual dependency to the US created a sense of unquestioning support, primarily among the security establishment but with roots deep into popular opinion. Sure, in 2001 we would have preferred a policing approach to counterterrorism bound firmly to the rule of law, but who are we to tell the lone superpower, the victim of the 9 – 11 attacks that were planned in Germany under the complacent eyes of our security services, how to go about this?
On the other hand, our tentative strategic reflexes on how to deal with violence all pointed in exactly the opposite direction. While naïve in many ways, a key tenet of German strategic culture, such as it is — “violence only begets more violence” — rang truer every year as the news from Afghanistan got worse, as Germany received the coffins of its own fallen soldiers and realized that it was fighting a war that was not going well. Something was obviously not working in the way our most important ally ran our collective business in Afghanistan.
The same battle of minds is at play these days in German attitudes about Mali, which makes it all the more urgent to learn lessons from the failure in Afghanistan: German compassion for the victims of terrorism in France and elsewhere is real, and there is greater popular understanding of the need to use force against international terrorists than is reflected among the political class. Yet the German population and its strategists alike remain fundamentally skeptical about whether the current, French-led approach can ever succeed, and if it does not actually do more harm than good.
High Time for Tough Questions
In Mali, German soldiers are still risking their lives every day. It is high time for the German political class to ask itself some probing questions about its navigation of similarly challenging choices over the past two decades in Afghanistan. What did the key figures in the governments of Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel believe about the soundness of US strategy and the German contributions to it, based on which they sent thousands of soldiers, police officers, diplomats, and development experts into a war zone, some with orders to kill or be killed? If they shared the doubts about US strategic choices, how did they navigate their options to address this political conundrum? In some cases, they did — efforts to facilitate talks with the Taliban in 2010 – 2012 are perhaps the most important example.
What did they do to fix the glaring holes in the government’s diplomatic, military, police, and development toolkits for the Afghan mission? At the practical level, the Afghan crucible has fueled plenty of change in every institution that played a role in it. The German Foreign Office and its development partners have professionalized and scaled up stabilization instruments, even as it continues to struggle with adequately staffing its embassies and enabling its people to see the country and talk to people in places like Iraq, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
While far too little and too late, even the byzantine labyrinth of the German police services has established organizations and expertise to deploy more effective advisers abroad. The Bundeswehr built its first-ever doctrines for counterinsurgency, training, and advisory operations and began to come to grips with a necessary shift in mindset after spending its first four decades as a peacetime military that prepared for a war that, if it ever broke out, would be unwinnable.
At the same time, the initial assumption — that emphasizing contributions to state building over warfighting would play to Germany’s strengths — did not stand up to reality. The catastrophic failure of the initial, German-led effort at establishing an Afghan police force is well documented.
Was German development assistance with its humanitarian focus on “livelihoods” useful for supporting a government struggling to establish political control, or did it accidentally generate political capital for whichever warlord ran the area in which livelihoods were being improved? Was German judicial assistance targeted in such a way as to help as many Afghans as possible access legal remedies when needed? Was German military training as effective as necessary, despite the so-called “caveats” that shifted as much risk as possible from the German trainers to their Afghan trainees?
No Moral High Ground
Nor was Berlin as attentive to its own logistics and procurement challenges as the grand speeches by German politicians about human rights and transparency would have suggested. German leaders were often happy to criticize their US allies for the way intelligence operatives and special operators doled out bags of cash to Afghan warlords and militias in the hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They were somewhat quieter when it came to the major transport networks the German presence depended on and the rental of properties on which German bases sat.
In fact, there are numerous indications that Germany played the same game but at its own, smaller, scale: so, for example, Berlin paid rents to local warlords to use particular plots of land, gave an armored Mercedes as a present to a drug dealing warlord to secure his cooperation in setting up shop in Kunduz, and sent indignant letters of refusal in response to US requests to participate in a late attempt at understanding ISAF’s own contribution to corruption.
Who tracked these unintended consequences of our efforts? How much did we invest in understanding what we might do and what the results were of what we did, as compared to the billions we invested in just doing something? How many in Team Germany traveled the cities and villages of Afghanistan, how many spoke any of the country’s languages, and how much did we make use of the country experts we have to develop our strategies and target our investments?
German voters and taxpayers, loved ones of the fallen, as well as the many Afghans who tied their destinies and that of their families to a job with the Germans deserve serious answers to these questions.
This commentary was originally published in Internationale Politik Quarterly on September 30, 2021.