German Defense Minister on Afghanistan 'We Have Fallen Short of Our Goal'

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.

German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere during a visit to Afghanistan: "At some point, you have to take off the training wheels."

German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere during a visit to Afghanistan: "At some point, you have to take off the training wheels."

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.


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