As the military band assembled for practice on the Berlin parade grounds, Ursula von der Leyen got a first taste of the difficulties awaiting her as Germany's new defense minister. As per her request, four-star General Hans-Lothar Domröse had come to her office to provide a thorough briefing earlier this month -- just a few hours before German armed forces were to bid a ceremonial farewell to her predecessor, Thomas de Maiziere.
Domröse, the highest-ranking German NATO officer, didn't have much good news for the new minister. The situation in Afghanistan, he said, was tense three months before the presidential election in April. He also voiced his concern about the withdrawal of German troops because it remains unclear whether the Bundeswehr, the German military, will contribute up to 800 soldiers to a planned training mission in Afghanistan starting in 2015 after the withdrawal has been completed. First, US President Barack Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai must come to an agreement on the ensuing mission -- and such an agreement is nowhere in sight.
Domröse warned the minister that every passing day without a decision makes it harder for NATO to plan the mission. And if no troop agreement is reached with Kabul, the Bundeswehr will have to make a complete withdrawal.
Von der Leyen is likely to have been concerned by what the highly respected Domröse had to tell her. She's the star of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and tipped as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel -- but von der Leyen will be measured by her handling of the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan. The former family affairs and labor minister needs to show that her skills extend beyond family and social policy.
She got off to a good start. The minister has pledged to transform the Bundeswehr into a modern, family-friendly organization, a message that the troops liked. But Domröse's clear words show that von der Leyen's pet issue -- making it easier for soldiers to combine their duties with family life -- won't be the sole policy dictating her agenda. Far from it.
Danger to German Troops
The uncertain outcome of the poker game between Kabul and Washington is presenting the Bundeswehr with an almost unsolvable challenge. It has to plan for two scenarios: the orderly transition into the training mission "Resolute Support" and the hectic withdrawal of all troops by the end of this year. The situation is so difficult that even Merkel picked up her phone last week to call Karzai and urge him to reach a deal with Washington. She didn't succeed.
A hurried withdrawal would heighten the danger to German troops. A badly organized exit would awaken memories of Vietnam and shape the image of the whole 12-year mission: the West's failure in Afghanistan.
Many are already asking what the point was of the combat mission, which cost the lives of more than 50 German troops. If the withdrawal goes wrong, von der Leyen will face a difficult debate about a mission that was always unpopular. "The withdrawal cannot look as though we are taking flight," warns Agnieszka Brugger of the opposition Greens.
Afghanistan, as difficult as it is, won't be the only challenge facing the minister. The Bundeswehr will also have to strengthen its deployment in Africa. France is calling for support in the Central African Republic and greater German involvement in Mali. On Monday, European foreign ministers agreed to an EU mission to the Central African Republic, with Germany likely to provide logistical support only. Merkel has ruled out ground troops there. Bundeswehr soldiers are already part of a training mission in Mali.
But French President François Hollande wants more, and Berlin likely won't refuse. For a long time, Berlin wasn't willing to acknowledge that German solders may also have to risk their lives in Africa. That, suddenly, can no longer be ruled out. This week, both von der Leyen and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier were scheduled to visit Paris for talks on what a German military contribution could look like.
It has become clear to the government in Berlin that they can't simply let France do all of the dirty work. Thus far, the German contribution has been limited to support flights -- and the Defense Ministry would like to keep it that way in the Central African Republic. But Berlin sees a possibility for helping France in Mali. Soon, a larger, more robust contingent of German soldiers is to support the ongoing effort to train troops there.
Full of Warnings
The German military is already involved in training troops in the southern Mali town of Koulikoro. The intent is to open a new training center not far away in Segou, located on the banks of the Niger River. Germany trained Malian soldiers there prior to the 2012 military putsch in the country.
In addition, Germany plans to move its air base for troop transport flights from Dakar, Senegal to Mali. That will grant the Bundeswehr more flexibility to respond to requests from both Malian and French military units in the country.
The situation in both regions -- Afghanistan and Africa -- could soon worsen just as von der Leyen begins her tenure. Concern is particularly great when it comes to Afghanistan and internal memoranda from diplomats are full of warnings. "2014 could very well become a fateful year for Afghanistan," German Ambassador in Kabul Martin Jäger cabled to Berlin on Jan. 6.
The reason is Karzai's refusal to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States. Many countries, including Germany, have made their long-term presence in the country dependent on that treaty -- one which would determine the future status of US troops in Afghanistan. "Without the US, without our international partners, it can't be done," said one Bundeswehr source.
Karzai negotiated the treaty with the US, but would like it to be signed by his successor. But there will be no successor before September. In his cable, Ambassador Jäger warned of "significant uncertainties relating to the ISAF successor mission." He wrote that he continues to hold out hope that Karzai will change his mind, but that one must prepare for the alternative scenario. Karzai's refusal to budge thus far forces NATO to "consider the option of complete withdrawal."
Karzai is concerned that signing the deal would strengthen anti-Western voices in the campaign. Should Afghanistan's relationship to troops from the US and elsewhere become an issue on the stump, "we could be in for some nasty surprises," Jäger wrote.
Considering Every Scenario
Berlin is concerned that the US could limit its presence to a minimal force in Kabul, if they stay at all. "In such a situation, we and our partner countries in the north (of Afghanistan) would be the losers," Jäger wrote. Civilian development cooperation would also suffer, he noted. "We have to prevent that."
Planners have begun considering every scenario as they prepare for the coming months, including the "Zero Option," as a complete withdrawal is referred to. All countries with troops in Afghanistan have begun reducing the size of their contingents. Every day, oversized cargo planes full of weapons, vehicles and other materiel take off from Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and Kandahar on their way home. Should the order come for a complete withdrawal, the Bundeswehr would need several million euros for additional transport capabilities, General Domröse told Defense Minister von der Leyen in their meeting earlier this month.
In a recent conference call with NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen, top military representatives from alliance member states agreed that they would begin planning in March for a full withdrawal by the end of this year should Karzai not have signed the "Bilateral Security Agreement" by then. As such, the worst-case scenario has become a concrete element in the alliance's planning for the year.
Immediately following the farewell ceremony for outgoing Defense Minister de Maizière, Domröse boarded a plane for Kabul where he met with the increasingly frustrated ISAF commander, Joseph Dunford. The US general says the West should cease pinning its hopes on Karzai. If the election in April is held successfully, he says, NATO should then conclude an agreement on troop presence with his successor in the fall. Until then, Western troops should focus on providing security for the campaign and the election.
US intelligence has already forecast what the consequences of a complete withdrawal and a cessation of the billions of dollars in aid payments would be. A 2013 National Intelligence Estimate, compiled by all 16 US intelligence agencies, notes: "The complete loss of financial assistance would accelerate devolution to an unmanageable pace." It says that "by 2017, the Taliban would probably control nearly all of the south and east and would contest the Kabul area."
'Slow the Pace of Decline'
The agencies note that the Afghan military, which has been laboriously developed in recent years, could collapse as early as 2015, which "would very likely lead to civil war, potentially a Taliban takeover and opportunities for a resurgent al-Qaida."
The paper, entitled "Afghanistan: Prospects for the Afghan Government to 2018," also remains pessimistic in a scenario in which the successor mission does get implemented. Even then, the report notes, "the situation in Afghanistan will deteriorate." Additional support would only serve to slow the pace of decline. With or without a mission, the paper notes, "the Taliban will steadily expand its influence and control over large parts of the countryside."
Events that unfolded on Friday underscore just how grave the situation has become. Three suicide bombers attacked a restaurant in Kabul's diplomatic quarter frequented by foreigners. At least 21 people were killed in the attack.
Shortly before Christmas, during her first visit to Afghanistan, the new defense minister still voiced optimism when she discussed conditions. Trudging together through the gravel and chilly December wind at the German military base in Mazar-e-Sharif, von der Leyen and General Dunford issued a joint statement of confidence with the US military. "An enormous amount has been achieved here, and we want to protect that," von der Leyen said. Only a few months remain for NATO to achieve that goal.