Germany's defense minister believes the next two years will be tough ones for German soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, Thomas de Maizière provides a sobering assessment 10 years into the Bundeswehr's deployment.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Minister de Maizière, NATO's ISAF mission in Afghanistan began precisely 10 years ago. Now NATO is taking steps toward withdrawal. What has the mission accomplished so far?
Thomas de Maizière: The question of the goals one reaches depends on what goals one sets. In the context of current debate on the topic, I went back and watched the Bundestag (German federal parliament) debate from autumn 2001. The most ardent proponents of the mandate at that point were politicians such as Green Party Bundestag representative Christian Ströbele and (then) Social Democratic Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. They, and others as well, presented a vision, very much driven by human rights concerns, of creating a free democracy according to the German model in Afghanistan, with the help of the Bundeswehr, Germany's Armed Forces. If we take this goal as our basis, then we have to say honestly that we've fallen short of our goal.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's a sobering assessment.
De Maizière: It was certainly sobering, and for many of us painful as well, to have to adjust our goals. But it was necessary. There was no point chasing illusions. And if we measure what we have achieved against these scaled-down goals, then we have certainly accomplished something in Afghanistan. The country has more schools than there were under the Taliban, healthcare is better, people have more freedom of opinion. Even if we are not always satisfied with the degree of success we've achieved, we should recognize these things. But at the same time, it is important that we state clearly that Afghanistan still does not have a true democracy, and perhaps never will.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could you define those scaled-down goals more precisely?
De Maizière: It was our goal from the beginning that Afghanistan would not go back to being the base of operations and hideout for international terrorism that it was before Sept. 11, 2001. That's something we can currently guarantee. The second goal was an appropriate amount of security carried out under Afghan leadership, which meant training and building up the Afghan army. In that respect, we're on the right track. Still, I would caution anyone who takes too optimistic a view of the years leading up to the planned withdrawal in 2014.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is that?
De Maizière: There will be setbacks, I'm sure of that. The mission is nowhere near complete. We will confer more and more responsibility on Afghan forces, as we must do, but not everything will go smoothly. I like to compare it to a child learning to ride a bicycle. At some point, you have to take off the training wheels and take the risk that the child will fall. In the case of Afghanistan, spills and missteps on the part of the new army would have more serious consequences than just a few scratches and scraped knees, of course -- for the Bundeswehr as well as for the Afghans.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Current public debate centers mainly on withdrawing troops, which the majority of voters supports. And there's certainly a noticeable military turnaround taking place. But isn't the withdrawal, planned to start in 2012, coming a bit soon?
De Maizière: The decision we in the government have worked out is a compromise, one that is militarily justifiable and something most people can support. Politically speaking, both we in the government and most of the opposition can agree on this formula. Militarily, the present plan is justifiable in that it also sends a clear message to Afghan leaders: They now need to do more than they have so far to take responsibility for their country into their own hands. For far too long, in my opinion, assistance from international troops, initially provided for an unlimited time period, had a nearly soporific effect on people in Afghanistan. Without this clear plan for withdrawal, even if it is fairly ambitious, it would never have been possible to motivate the Afghan government to finally start doing more to build up its own army and a working administrative system.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And yet the withdrawal hardly seems to be tied anymore to the development of Afghanistan's security forces or government, but perhaps more to the fact that all NATO members are looking to withdraw.
De Maizière: We won't allow irresponsible policies. We will always attempt to reduce the number of troops in responsible ways. In the coming year, with the new mandate, we will do some slight paring down in all military areas and recall those of the troops' capabilities that are not seeing much use. We'll also remove the reserve troops we've kept in Afghanistan up until now. But please don't misunderstand. We won't be reducing the troops' combat strength in the coming year, because we'll still need a considerable portion of them in the unstable regions under our command. The Bundeswehr will still be capable of reacting decisively to dangerous situations in 2012 and beyond.
'I Won't Allow a Vacuum on Matters of Security'SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're referring to the most precarious regions in the north, such as Taliban strongholds near Kunduz and Baghlan. Military commanders there say quite openly that they consider a withdrawal, even after two additional years of fighting insurgents there, unrealistic.
De Maizière: I can't predict the future, of course, but I understand the concerns. In the past two years, we've achieved a great deal in the regions you mentioned. We've fought hard battles and suffered losses. We will continue this tough strategy toward overcoming the insurgents in the next two years as well, but the regions of Kunduz and Baghlan are sure to remain unstable. They have great tactical importance, both for us and for the insurgents, not least because of the supply route that runs through the north. Withdrawal there will certainly be difficult, but I as defense minister won't allow there to be a vacuum on matters of security, not in the areas you mentioned nor anywhere else in northern Afghanistan. We will withdraw only in the places where Afghan forces are truly able to take over responsibility. Anything else would be madness.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Considering the many misgivings about the Afghan army's effectiveness, that sounds a bit like optimism born simply of having no other options.
De Maizière: I am consciously choosing not to make promises, but instead to orient myself toward the situation as it stands. Current reports suggest to me that a sober degree of confidence is reasonable, no more and no less. In recent months, we've concentrated on increasing numbers in the Afghan army. Now we need to pay attention to quality. We still have a great deal of work ahead of us. We need to train supervising officers better, and at the NATO summit in Chicago (in May), we'll need to decide who out of the international group of countries involved in Afghanistan wants to fund the maintenance of the Afghan army in the future, and how best to equip that army.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Afghan army is without a doubt one important piece of the foundation for stability in the country, but the Afghan government is even more important. Just recently, President Hamid Karzai, in office since 2001, once again promised the international community that he will implement reforms to create better governance, establish more equity and fight corruption decisively. Do you still believe these promises?
De Maizière: There's one thing we should say very clearly: The political process in Afghanistan is lagging far behind what we can and have accomplished militarily. That's something we have to tell major players in Afghanistan, but also in the various regions, again and again. Karzai will have to prove in the coming months that he's serious about his declarations, or he risks losing credibility.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You could have taken the opportunity to tell him that personally at the recent Afghanistan conference in Bonn.
De Maizière: It's not my job to play foreign policy know-it-all and hand out homework assignments. But at the same time, we all know we still face many difficult tasks, everything from the political process toward reaching more or less tolerable governance in Kabul to the extremely complex reconciliation process with the Taliban. The fact that military progress is looking better than progress in the political arena at the moment may not be ideal, but speaking as defense minister, it certainly doesn't reflect badly on my soldiers either, who are doing an excellent job.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let's leave the details of the mission for a moment, and talk about its significance for NATO and for Germany. How has the ISAF mission changed NATO?
De Maizière: The mission in Afghanistan has gone well beyond NATO, with the involvement of many non-NATO nations. I believe this mission has put cooperation within NATO fully to the test for the first time, and it has proved itself. When you go to Afghanistan now, you see Germans working together, as the most natural thing in the world, with American or British soldiers or even colleagues from Mongolia. We've overcome many of our reservations here and professionalized the way we handle operations to an enormous degree. That's something you can't practice in drills, it only happens in real deployment. Without that development, there might never have been missions such as the one in Libya. With all the talk of a NATO crisis, it's important also to take note that its members never cooperated so closely before, and will continue to do so after completion of the operation in the Hindu Kush. You can't turn back the clock.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But at the same time, it's unlikely now that any NATO member will hazard another ground offensive like the one in Afghanistan, isn't it?
De Maizière: It seems to me, no NATO nation has an interest in intervention through invasion. But that viewpoint has its advantages: Presumably, in the future, no one will attempt unilateral actions, but instead will join forces and even, as in the case of Libya, act under the legitimation of a United Nations mandate. That serves to lessen suspicions that individual nations might initiate such a mission purely in their own interests.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germany is sure to have the honor of being asked again and again to participate in such joint missions, as it was in Libya. Is the country ready for new military adventures?
De Maizière: It's not a question of adventures. The mission in Afghanistan brought far-reaching change not only to the Bundeswehr, but to Germany as a whole. With this mission, as controversial as it was and still is, Germany proved itself for the first time to be a full-fledged, capable member of NATO. Prior to the ISAF mission, most of our partners likely didn't even believe German soldiers were capable of fighting, or that their leaders dared order them to do so. We've proven that in fact we can, and that we're willing to make sacrifices. We've cast off the image of the armed medic and election observer, and become a full-fledged army, one respected by our partners. The campaign in Afghanistan and the broad combat deployment of our army have transformed both the Bundeswehr and Germany, and that is something that will remain with us.
Interview conducted by Matthias Gebauer; translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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