German Minister on Afghan Mission: 'Protecting Our Soldiers Is the Top Priority'

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière talks to SPIEGEL about why 50 German soldiers abandoned a military base in Afghanistan that was being targeted by demonstrators. He says expectations of what the West can achieve in the country have been too high, and that future missions must be better prepared. 

Photo Gallery: German Minister Says Army Was Right to Quit Afghan Base Photos
REUTERS

SPIEGEL: Minister de Maizière, why did 50 German soldiers in Afghanistan capitulate when they were confronted by some 300 demonstrators last month?

De Maizière: Your depiction of the circumstances is incorrect. It was an orderly withdrawal...

SPIEGEL: … but it happened so precipitously that it looked like a capitulation.

De Maizière: The base had such an unfavorable position in Talokan's downtown area that it was practically indefensible. In any case, it was supposed to be closed in four weeks. Even before the demonstrations, the commander in charge had already decided to bring the closure forward by a month. When the demonstrations began, our surveillance drones were able to transmit all the agitation live. So the commander was able to monitor ever move the demonstrators were making.

SPIEGEL: And then he got cold feet?

De Maizière: You've apparently forgotten that a number of demonstrators were on the verge of storming the base on May 18 of last year. Our soldiers had to use their firearms to prevent a storming. At the time, the Bundeswehr (Germany's military) was criticized for doing so. We wanted to avoid this kind of escalation, so the soldiers left the base in an orderly and in no way precipitous fashion. In doing so, it was surrendered.

SPIEGEL: To whom?

De Maizière: To the Afghan security personnel there, and it will be completely dismantled once calm has been re-established. I have absolutely no criticisms of this responsible decision made by the commander on the ground.

SPIEGEL: You often use an analogy to explain the Bundeswehr's role in Afghanistan. You say that the Bundeswehr is the driving instructor who moves from the driver's to the passenger seat so that the Afghans can finally learn how to drive themselves. In Talokan, one got the impression that the German soldiers jumped out of the car because it was heading straight into a wall.

De Maizière: I never tire of saying that a withdrawal is a complicated matter. It needs to be carried out in a safe, orderly and sustained manner. That is exactly what happened in Talokan.

SPIEGEL: Was the withdrawal discussed with the political leadership in Berlin?

De Maizière: That's something that the commander on the ground decides. It would be rather presumptuous if self-appointed experts to claim to know everything better from here.

SPIEGEL: In any case, the withdrawal looked hasty to the Afghans. Not even the provincial governor had been told it would happen.

De Maizière: The provincial governor was informed about the withdrawal, but not about when it would happen. And there are good reasons for that.

SPIEGEL: Such as?

De Maizière: I'm not permitted to publicly discuss them.

SPIEGEL: One always hears that the withdrawal of international troops depends on the security situation. Has the situation gotten so unstable that the entire withdrawal plan is endangered?

De Maizière: The situation has obviously gotten more complicated in the wake of the inexcusable, inadvertent burning of parts of the Koran. It was a setback, not a completely new situation.

SPIEGEL: So the Bundeswehr could actually have remained in Talokan for four more weeks.

De Maizière: Under these circumstances, no. Protecting our soldiers is the top priority. From the very beginning, it made little sense to station 50 German soldiers in the center of such a difficult area without any protection or operational mission. The base should have been shut down a long time ago. That's not a pleasing answer, but that's how it is.

SPIEGEL: Two weeks ago, two US soldiers working as advisers in the Interior Ministry in Kabul were shot dead by an Afghan security official. In response, ISAF (the NATO-led stability force) has now pulled all of its advisers out of Afghan ministries. Doesn't that mean the mission is effectively over?

De Maizière: That is a temporary security measure; it hasn't been established on a permanent basis and is absolutely understandable.

SPIEGEL: The Taliban infiltrated parts of the Afghan security forces long ago. Does that mean the West is merely training the Taliban of tomorrow?

De Maizière: We know that attempts are being made to infiltrate the Afghan security forces. We're countering that with biometrics, personnel investigations and checks. But that doesn't change anything about the fact that the strategy of partnering, of mentoring, of collaboration is correct. But, of course, in this mission, soldiers can't succeed by themselves. Establishing a political system isn't the military's job. And that's why the political process until 2014 and beyond is so crucial.

SPIEGEL: How do you think this political process has been going? Are you happy with it?

De Maizière: No, of course not. Political progress is lagging behind progress in the military situation and security policies.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, the insurgents are threatening the population largely unhindered. Two weeks ago, there was another case of people in southern Afghanistan being beheaded for allegedly cooperating with the West.

De Maizière: I'm not saying that the strategy has already been brought to a successful end. Until 2014, it will entail two elements: the robust mission against the insurgents, up to and including the deployment of special forces, and the political process of reconciliation and the political balance with the neighbors. There's no guarantee that it will work out.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, it seems like the Americans are the main ones urging a very swift exit.

De Maizière: No. The heads of state and government decided on a strategy that defines a clear course of action until the end of 2014. I have just been in the United States and spoke with my American counterpart. And he is firmly committed to this strategy. Of course, it's understandable that the mission is controversial, that many in the population are asking critical questions. But political leaders have to withstand headwinds.

SPIEGEL: After a decade in Afghanistan, what would be your honest appraisal of the mission?

De Maizière: I would much rather answer the question in 2016, 2017 or 2018, but I don't want to dodge it. In 2001, expectations were too high. We will not be able to build up a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. But, all the same, the mission was and is right. Whether it remains a long-term success is something we'll only know in several years.

SPIEGEL: What would you define as a success?

De Maizière: If no more terrorism were exported from Afghanistan on a lasting basis, and if Afghan security forces could keep this weak state halfway safe.

SPIEGEL: What lessons have you taken from this mission?

De Maizière: First, that there has to be a strategy for how one sends soldiers on the mission and how one gets them back out. A mistake in the course of the process is OK, but it just doesn't work without this kind of strategy at the beginning. Second, one should realistically weigh beforehand whether the stated goal is attainable. Third, one needs to gauge how much the mission is going to cost and how high the likely death toll is. And, fourth, our alliance obligations naturally also play a role.

SPIEGEL: With these requirements, you're setting the bar for future missions extremely high.

De Maizière: It used to be that politicians involved in defense issues were suspected of always being too quick rather than to slow to deploy soldiers, while the politicians involved in human rights issues warned against doing so. Since the genocide in Rwanda, which the global community watched without doing a thing, I've seen the front-line positions reversed. Human rights activists prefer to deploy soldiers more quickly rather than more slowly, while the military calls out "Hey, there, be careful!"

SPIEGEL: And where do you stand on all of this?

De Maizière: One should never send soldiers on a mission based on just good will and good intent. Unfortunately, that can mean one has to stand by and watch human rights abuses take place.

SPIEGEL: Like what's happening with Syria right now?

De Maizière: In the case of Syria, we need the international community and a UN resolution. We're light years away from that.

Interview conducted by Ulrike Demmer and Konstantin von Hammerstein

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