Germany's Afghanistan Dilemma What To Do With Local Hires?

With the Taliban rapidly taking control in Afghanistan, Berlin doesn't have much time left to protect local hires from potential harm. Meanwhile, a potential new wave of refugees from the country threatens to become a dominant issue in the general election campaign.
Several local hires who worked for the German military in Mazar-i-Sharif feel like they have been left in the lurch by Berlin.

Several local hires who worked for the German military in Mazar-i-Sharif feel like they have been left in the lurch by Berlin.

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

The telephone call for which Kabir Popal had been waiting for months lasted for just one minute and 57 seconds. It was midday in the Afghan capital of Kabul when a German number popped up on his mobile phone display. The caller, an employee of the German military, the Bundeswehr, told Popal that as a former assistant to German troops in Afghanistan, he was now eligible for a visa to emigrate to Germany.

It was a cathartic moment for Popal, giving him hope that he could evade the wrath of the Taliban, which has recently been advancing across Afghanistan more rapidly than expected since the withdrawal of the international troops. "I was so excited," Popal says. "It was a mealtime, but I was so happy I couldn’t eat."


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 33/2021 (August 14th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Popal’s euphoria, though, only lasted until a few days later, when he received an email from the Bundeswehr: "The call was unfortunately made by accident. You are actually not eligible for asylum." Apparently, there had been a misunderstanding between the Foreign Ministry and the German military. The two sentences in the email destroyed Popal’s hopes.

"This spells the end of my life," says the 32-year-old. He spent 14 years working at the German base in Mazar-i-Sharif, selling military clothing, holsters and T-shirts to German soldiers. He wasn’t employed directly by the Bundeswehr, but by a private company. And that is why he doesn’t fulfill the criteria for coming to Germany, according to which local hires had to be directly employed by the German military. "Until now, I thought that Germany was a just country where morals have a role to play," Popal says. Now, he fears for his life.

When the Bundeswehr flew out the last German troops at the end of June, politicians in Berlin called it the end of an era, the conclusion of a deadly foreign mission that began when Germany joined the U.S. following the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Suddenly, though, the situation in Afghanistan is shifting with astonishing speed. With no real resistance from the Afghan military, Islamists are taking over the country. U.S. intelligence agencies fear that Kabul could fall as soon as autumn.

As a result, the German government finds itself facing an extremely sensitive question: After two decades of military involvement in Afghanistan, how much responsibility does Berlin have for the country and its people? Is it time for politicians to begin preparing for a Taliban government? And is Germany facing a new wave of refugees of the kind seen during the civil war in Syria? As the campaign heats up in Germany ahead of general elections this fall, Afghanistan is looking as though it could become an important issue.

On Wednesday, despite the ongoing summer break for Germany’s parliament, Defense Ministry State Secretary Thomas Silberhorn briefed a handful of representatives via video conference about the situation in Afghanistan. His assessment was anything but optimistic. Even if the U.S. were to resume large-scale airstrikes against the advancing Taliban, Silberhorn said, it would at most be enough to slow the Islamists’ progress. Stopping it completely is no longer possible, he said.

"A Short Window of Time"

After Silberhorn finished, Jasper Wieck, the new special representative for Afghanistan for German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, joined the conference. Wieck recently visited Doha, the capital of Qatar, where he met with leaders from the Taliban’s political arm.

Wieck, though, had little to say about new negotiations over a peace deal between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan. The talks have been on ice for quite some time. Instead, the Taliban representatives asked Wieck if Berlin would be prepared to continue providing development aid if the Islamists were part of the country’s government.

Foreign Minister Maas has already made his position clear: Should the Islamists take over power in the country and establish a caliphate, he has said, "not a single additional cent would be sent to Afghanistan.”

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country has now increased the pressure on Berlin to bring hundreds of local Bundeswehr hires and their families to safety in Germany. "We only have a short window of time to extract the people from the life-threatening situation,” says Clara Bünger, an expert on refugees with the far-left Left Party.

It’s not just opposition politicians who find it rather tawdry that Berlin is only planning to accept those directly employed by the Bundeswehr and not people like Kabir Popal. "For the Taliban, they are all collaborators and traitors," says Boris Pistorius, the interior minister of the state of Lower Saxony and a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), which is the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition. He is demanding that the federal government take action "rapidly and free of bureaucracy” by sending charter planes to Afghanistan to fly out local hires – including subcontractors and their employees.

Germany has put a stop to deportation flights to Afghanistan like this one, which took place in 2019. With the Taliban rapidly taking control of the country, it is no longer seen as a safe place for deportees.

Germany has put a stop to deportation flights to Afghanistan like this one, which took place in 2019. With the Taliban rapidly taking control of the country, it is no longer seen as a safe place for deportees.

Foto: Michael Kappeler / picture alliance / dpa

"It’s really been obvious for years that it would come to this," says Thorsten L., a captain in the German Air Force. "That means we have an even greater responsibility to help the people who worked for us.”

In view of that responsibility, Thorsten L. has taken action himself. On a recent Saturday afternoon, he went to the Frankfurt Airport to welcome Hanif S. and his family. The Afghan man had worked for Thorsten L. as the foreman of a group of construction workers, which is the reason he received a visa to come to Germany.

But he had to organize his own trip. Thorsten L. helped him and other families with those preparations. The soldier paid out 800 euros from his own pocket to rent a minibus and pay for hotels and train tickets.

"Why Isn't It Working?"

When it comes to protecting local hires, even the U.S. has been more generous than the Germans. The Americans have expanded their visa program to include Afghan employees of American aid organizations and media outlets. "The German government has apparently not understood that such a foreign mission comes with a burden of responsibility," says Luise Amtsberg, the spokesperson for refugee issues for the Green Party.

Many among Merkel’s conservatives are aware that the situation in Afghanistan could rapidly worsen. Nevertheless, the vehemence with which Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to replace the outgoing Merkel in the Chancellery, addressed the issue of local hires in a Monday meeting with leading members of his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), likely came as a surprise to some.

These people can’t just be left in the lurch, Laschet said angrily, according to participants in the online conference. Otherwise, Laschet continued, nobody would ever help German soldiers abroad in the future.

Laschet turned to Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, who participated in the meeting. "Why isn’t it working?" Laschet demanded to know from his startled party ally, according to participants. He demanded that Braun see to it that something was done. According to meeting participants, Braun simply nodded.

The European Union also employed numerous Afghans during the Western presence in the country, both at the EU Embassy in Kabul and as part of the European police mission EUPOL, which spent years supporting the development of security forces in the country. When that project came to an end five years ago, members of the mission turned to their superiors in Brussels to request that their over 120 local hires be protected from the Taliban should it ever become necessary. With limited success.

The European Commission ruled that issuing visas was the responsibility of the member states. But the member states declined responsibility, since it had been an EU mission.

The problem was pushed back and forth, such that dozens of former EU employees "are still searching for a safe place for themselves and their families," according to a circular written by the former EUPOL head of personnel, Andrea Thies.

Some 360 former local hires with 1,458 family members have thus far arrived in Germany. In total, 1,300 local hires have worked for the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan since 2013.

Source: German Defense Ministry. Current as of August 11.

"EU member states cannot leave their Afghan helpers in the lurch due to a jurisdiction debate," says Sven Giegold, a European parliamentarian with the Green Party. And it appears that this view is slowly gaining credence in Brussels. The departments responsible spent last week hectically trying to find a solution – and people close to Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, voiced confidence that one would be found.

It remains an open question, though, as to whether that solution will come fast enough.

As the effort to provide assistance to local hires makes halting progress, many politicians in Berlin are growing increasingly concerned that Afghanistan might produce a new wave of refugees headed for Europe. Thus far, it is primarily Afghanistan’s neighbors that have felt the consequences of the renewed unrest in the country. But will it stay that way?

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, had wanted to continue sending rejected asylum-seekers, particularly those who had run into trouble with the law in Germany, back to Afghanistan – in part to dissuade others from attempting to come. But on Wednesday, he was forced to accept that his strict approach was no longer tenable. He ordered that deportations to Afghanistan be stopped, though the order is only to apply on a preliminary basis. Seehofer said that the dialogue with Afghanistan over deportations must continue, adding: "Otherwise, we will be faced with a surge of refugees, which worries us even more.”

Thorsten Frei, deputy head of the CDU/CSU group in parliament, warned against making the same mistake that was made in the case of Syria. "In 2014, the refugee camps in the region were dramatically underfunded, which is why hundreds of thousands of people made their way to Europe,” Frei says. "If the Taliban gain control of the country, we will have to do all we can to ensure that neighboring countries and international aid organizations are able to provide the necessary assistance to refugees from Afghanistan.”

The situation in Afghanistan is "disastrous,” says CDU foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen. "It could happen that millions of people set off – and it could begin as early as the coming weeks.”

Honoring the Mission in Afghanistan

In internal papers addressing an EU action plan for Afghanistan, Germany has urged providing support to neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran – both of which are problematic countries in their own way. Those two countries would likely have to deal with the "lion’s share” of the refugees from Afghanistan. But the "migration pressure” would also likely rise in Turkey as well, the German government warns.

The documents also reveal that France is demanding that onward migration toward Europe be prevented and that significant efforts be made to stop human trafficking. Austria has proposed expanding the EU-Turkey deal to include refugees from Afghanistan – which would presumably also mean channeling additional billions of euros to Turkey’s heavy-handed president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, so that he prevents refugees from continuing onward to Europe.

Migration expert Gerald Knaus believes that the debate is currently too rooted in fear. "The situation is not at all comparable to 2015," he says. The number of refugees from Afghanistan who make it to Europe remains small. And that, he believes, won’t change any time soon.

Knaus believes a comparison with 1979 is more accurate. That year, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam by boat. In part because neighboring countries refused to help them, Germany and other Western countries accepted many of the refugees.

Knaus is in favor of implementing an asylum program similar to the one back then, with defined contingents, organized by a coalition of countries and the United Nations. "Many Germans likely feel a certain affinity for the enemies of the Taliban, just as they felt for the Boat People from Vietnam back then," the expert says.

The German government is currently planning a handful of emblematic events focusing on Afghanistan. On August 26, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is holding a conference to address what went well in the German mission in Afghanistan and what did not. The debate, she promised even before the last German troops had been withdrawn, will be unsparing.

One week later, the government plans to hold a commemoration to thank German soldiers who served in Afghanistan. First, there will be a roll call at the Bendlerblock, the historic building in Berlin that is the second home to Germany’s Defense Ministry. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is scheduled to speak. Then, the Afghanistan mission will be officially ended with a ceremony at the Reichstag, the seat of German parliament.

Given the situation, Defense Ministry planners fear that both events could be a bit awkward. One officer finds himself wondering: "How should we honor the end of our mission when the Taliban are standing at the gates of Kabul?"

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