A War Built on Four Lies: Why Germany Must End its Deployment in Afghanistan

A Commentary by Jürgen Todenhöfer

The war in Afghanistan is based on four lies, including the premise that NATO allies are there to fight international terrorism, writes conservative ex-parliamentarian Jürgen Todenhöfer. It's time to end Germany's military engagement, he argues, and negotiating with the Taliban is the only solution.

US soldiers search for weapons on an Afghan man in April 2008. Zoom
REUTERS

US soldiers search for weapons on an Afghan man in April 2008.

Sleet was driving against our faces that cold, wet evening in Tübingen in December 1984. I was a member of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, representing the electoral district of that southwestern German city, famous around the world for its prestigious university. Together with the Junge Union, the youth organization of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), I was protesting the Soviet Union's war in the Hindu Kush, which had already been raging for five years.

"Freedom for Afghanistan!" we shouted into the night, though no one in Moscow could hear us. A few days later, I read that Russia's defense minister had awarded another round of medals to soldiers for their bravery.

Back then, hardly any other issue united parties across Germany's political spectrum as much as our shared opposition to that war. So how is it that now, over 25 years later, the CDU is so unified in its support for war? How can it be that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- former Chancellor Willy Brandt's party of peace -- and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's party of nonviolence -- are marching almost blindly in lockstep? Or that the Green Party, which once pledged to beat swords into plowshares, can't find the strength to deliver a clear "no"?

Perhaps it's understandable why, in the emotional hours after the 9/11 attacks, no German politician could muster the courage to tell our American friends that we wouldn't take part in any wars. What's harder to explain is why, more than nine years later, our politicians are still tagging along. Is it just that we're nervous about upsetting our NATO partner?

The ongoing debate over which conditions might possibly allow Germany to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 includes an element of the absurd, as Berlin shoots worried glances toward Washington, wondering if its big brother really will withdraw by 2014. After all, the great unspoken stipulation among Germany's hawks is that if the United States decides to push back its own withdrawal date, our leaders will also be able to find some rationale for staying. Indeed, when it comes to worries about upsetting our NATO partner nothing has changed.

There's something eerie about a withdrawal put off for four years. It basically means that we're expecting the Afghans to live through another stretch of war lasting as long as World War I. In 1988, Gorbachev would have found himself buried under a mountain of scorn if he had solemnly announced that he might "possibly" withdraw his combat troops in four years -- or perhaps even a bit later. Indeed, the West's promise to maybe withdraw from Afghanistan in four or more years sounds a lot like a chain smoker's vow to kick the habit sometime, somewhere down the line.

In recent years, I haven't met a single politician capable of explaining convincingly -- and for more than 10 minutes -- exactly what NATO is doing in Afghanistan. In fact, most of these conversations end with a shoulder shrug of resignation. After all, they argue, an alliance is an alliance, and superpowers can't simply drop out of wars.

The Four Lies about the War in Afghanistan

Since no one really wants to repeat such platitudes, they prefer to tell fairy tales like the ones they used with Iraq. Their hands hold swords, while their mouths tell lies. When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, there are four lies:

The first lie says we're there to fight international terrorism. Even David Petraeus, supreme commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, conceded in May 2009 that al-Qaida is no longer operating in Afghanistan. The organization became decentralized a long time ago, with nerve centers spread around the globe. And al-Qaida's leaders don't transmit instructions from Afghanistan anymore because all electronic data traffic in the region is monitored by American drones and satellites.

In Afghanistan, what we're really fighting is not international terrorists, but a national resistance movement -- and, in doing so, we're creating exactly the thing we claim to be combating. For every civilian we kill, 10 more young people across the globe rise up, determined to strike back with terror. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, called this "insurgent math" in the interview that would ultimately cost him his job. Like a boomerang, our own violence comes back to haunt us in the guise of global terrorism.

The second lie is that we're there to defend our civilization's values. I recently held a position teaching constitutional law. I tried to explain to my students that our constitution protects every individual's dignity. No one can be deprived of his or her freedom without a trial. But where is human dignity being respected in Afghanistan? Every day, two to three Afghan civilians die at the hands of Western troops. By night, nameless American death squads move in to liquidate resistance leaders -- and often civilians as well -- violating the most basic rules of international law. Young Afghans have sat in the Bagram torture prison for years with no hope of being granted a trial and in conditions worse than at Guantanamo.

Our "defenders of civilization" never considered this worthy of a parliamentary debate. Indeed, since the dawn of colonialism, our involvement in the Muslim world has never been about defending our civilization's values; it's about defending our interests -- and Iraq and Afghanistan are merely the latest episodes in a long history. What's more, in most cases we've even been more brutal than our Muslim opponents. Granted, over the past 19 years, al-Qaida has brutally murdered some 3,500 Western civilians in the United States and Western Europe. But former US President George W. Bush has hundreds of thousands of civilian lives on his conscience in Iraq alone -- and all of this is in the name of our civilization.

The third lie is that we prioritize civilian reconstruction over military activities. Although the US spent $100 billion (€74 billion) on the war in 2010, only $5 billion of that was for development aid -- and 40 percent of this "aid" happened to flow back to the US as profit and fees. The rest of the money had to wind its way through the dark channels of international subcontractors before a trickle of 20-30 percent finally reached development projects.

Germany likewise puts into reconstruction only a fraction of what it spends on its military. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Afghanistan is currently the poorest country in Asia, and UNICEF estimates that 20 percent of all children there die before reaching the age of five. Even US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry admits that 77 percent of Afghans don't have access to clean drinking water and 45 percent go hungry. Under these circumstances, can we really call this "prioritizing civilian reconstruction"?

The fourth lie is that we're in the Hindu Kush to prevent the return of the Taliban for good. That almost sounds like a goal we can rally behind. After all, who really wants to see a return of those Stone Age warriors who trample women's rights under their feet? Nevertheless, the truth is actually much more complex. The Taliban already controls half of Afghanistan, and the danger that it will capture the rest won't be any smaller four years from now. Indeed, the Afghan Taliban grows stronger every day and -- unlike its imitators in Pakistan -- it seems to have learned from past mistakes. The New York Times has reported that, in some regions controlled by the resistance, girls are once again being barred from attending school -- with the Taliban's approval. The "Layeha," or "book of rules," laid down by Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar suggests that things will soon change in many respects.

Even if things were different, the Taliban's unacceptable worldview is still not a good enough reason to wage war. If that were the case we would also have to invade Somalia, Yemen and North Korea and a number of other authoritarian states, some of which we even count among our allies. The world would become one massive, bloody battlefield.

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1. this author has no idea what he is talking about
jadger 02/20/2011
I would like to start off by quoting the article: "Just once, I would like to take a German politician to visit an Afghan family. He could leave his combat helmet and flak jacket at home since hospitality is a tradition sacred to Afghans." This idiot who wrote the article knows nothing. A Canadian soldier removed his helmet when he met with village elders, and promptly received an axe in the back of the head. So much for "hospitality". What the author refers to is Pashtunwali, their code of honour, but in the North where the German troops are, there are no Pashtuns, and no one follows the Pashtunwali, which even when followed by Pashtuns, isn't really sacred, nor do they follow it very often. Also, you can say you will negotiate with the Taliban, but look at what happened in the past when you negotiated with the Taliban. They attack you harder than ever. Just look at the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masud, that is their code of honour, they think in a totally different way than westerners do. I would like to know if the author of this article has ever actually been to Afghanistan... I am a Canadian soldier currently serving an 8 month tour near Kandahar City, and if the author has been to Afghanistan, it hasn't been in the last nine years, or he is severely out of touch with reality. Also, he makes the claim that we are fighting an insurgent force, defined as locals rising up against the government. Is that why the vast majority of fighters are Pakistanis sneaking across the border? The locals are paid by the Taliban, but they do not usually support them. They simply see them as another source of money when they aren't working their fields. They see ISAF the same way, they are not willing to put their support beside one side or the other until they know which side will win, it has been that way throughout hundreds of years of Afghan history. As for the prioritization of aid over military force, yes more needs to be done, but when the locals don't want you to reconstruct the country, you can't do anything. You can't force them to make their country better. They quite honestly would rather live in their cesspit than do any actual work that wont directly improve their lot in life. Unless it is extremely beneficial to them, an Afghan will not lift a finger.
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About Jürgen Todenhöfer
Jürgen Todenhöfer, 70, served as a representative in the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, as a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from 1972 to 1990. He has also served as a judge and a member of the executive board of the German media company Hubert Burda Media. Todenhöfer has made regular visits to Afghanistan since 1980 and wrote about them in his 2010 book "Teile Dein Glück" ("Share Your Good Fortune").

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