Germany's Mission in Afghanistan Ex-Defense Officials Skeptical of Success

The belief that things will end well in Afghanistan is dwindling in Germany. An increasing number of security experts recommend an orderly withdrawal and even those who were involved in sending the Bundeswehr on the mission are now voicing doubts about ultimate success.


By Christoph Schwennicke

Former Defense Minister Peter Struck, the man who once declared that Germany's security would be "defended in the Hindu Kush" drives his own car again -- the days of his chauffeur-driven armored government vehicle are over. He also needs a ticket for the parking garage in order to drive his car back out Struck tells the waiter at the Hotel Berlin restaurant on Lützowplatz, where the interior still seems to date from the deepest days of West Berlin behind the Wall, the days when Germany still settled its contributions to international military missions with a checkbook.

Struck is now free of ministerial responsibilities, just as he is free of the government car, the security agents and everything else associated with the office. But the topic of Afghanistan hasn't released its hold on him, not even now that he is for all intents and purposes only waiting to finally become head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an organization closely associated with Struck's Social Democratic Party (SPD).

'We Thoroughly Deceived Ourselves'

Asked if everything is going well in Afghanistan, Struck bursts out with, "No!" Asked if the German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, are where they had hoped to be, he exclaims, "No, of course not!" He can clearly remember the days following Sept. 11, 2001. Struck was chairman of the SPD's parliamentary group when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared Germany's full solidarity with the United States. This statement effectively meant Germany would be going to Afghanistan. "One year, then we'd be back out, that's what we thought back then," Struck says, poking at his fish, before adding, "We thoroughly deceived ourselves."

That is certainly true. After nearly nine years, the Bundeswehr is still deployed in Afghanistan. Germany, along with the rest of the "coalition of the willing," only grows more deeply mired in a mission that looked in the beginning like it could be a simple hit and run job. Now doubts about the point of the mission are piling up far more quickly than success stories. The international coalition has seen 1,822 soldiers die in Afghanistan to date. Just in the past week, at least 16 more soldiers fell in the battle against the Taliban, all killed in bomb attacks and rocket strikes. A supply convoy with 80 vehicles was attacked and went up in flames, leaving seven more dead.

The price is soaring higher and higher, in terms of both human lives and finances. Officially, the mission costs Germany €1 billion ($1.2 billion) per year, but experts place the true costs at three times that amount, which would make it 10 percent of the country's defense budget. Official data has the war in Afghanistan costing Germany over €6 billion so far.

The West is tired of war. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently complained that "the demilitarization of Europe" has become "an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace." But after the Taliban's latest offensive, even the US is growing weary. International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander Stanley McChrystal scrapped an offensive in Kandahar planned for this summer, which had been pegged as the decisive factor in gaining the upper hand over the Taliban. With NATO very much on the defensive at the moment, the only remaining military alliance to operate on a global scale is in danger of losing to an opponent that recruits from a small pool of fanatics.

A glance back to the mission's origins reveals that even old political warriors here in Germany have grown tired, at a loss for solutions. Fate seems to have taken a stealthy course. "The idea was that we, the international community, are in Kabul, and stability spreads from there to the rest of the country," Struck says. "The opposite occurred. We had to go out into the provinces."

And death was waiting out there.

It was June 2003 when Peter Struck stopped believing it would be possible to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close. A Bundeswehr bus had been blown up by suicide bombers driving a Lada. Four German soldiers were killed and 29 injured, some terribly so. Struck had to face the soldiers' family members at the airport in Cologne. Their eyes bored into him and seemed to ask -- "Why?" Those gazes haven't left Struck to this day. Then, he says, in June 2003, "it must have been clear even to the last holdouts that this was not just an aid mission in uniform."

Afghanistan Became the Adventure

Yes to responsibility, no to adventure -- this was the formula with which Chancellor Schröder kept Germany out of Iraq, but led the country into Afghanistan. Since then, Iraq has grown calmer and Afghanistan has become the adventure. This begs the question: Would it have been possible to foresee this outcome back then? Or does the situation in Afghanistan simply reflect an old saying from military thinker Carl von Clausewitz -- that the first shot in a war is the only part that can really be planned in advance?

Café Weyers on Ludwigkirchplatz in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district is a peaceful spot to discuss war. Walther Stützle suggested the location, near his home here in the western part of the city. Stützle, an experienced security policymaker, has worked at London's renowned Institute for Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and now works for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in Berlin. All rank among the finest and best organizations focusing on national and international security policy. For four years of his eventful career, Stützle served as state secretary in Germany's Defense Ministry, and the airplane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred during his term there.

Unnoticed by the general public, Stützle gave a talk at the East-West Forum Gut Gödelitz this January that contained a minor sensation. "Afghanistan -- the Failed Intervention" was the title of his paper, and the text began with the words, "The military intervention in Afghanistan was and remains a grave error."

Stützle has ordered a latte and now he stirs the coffee and lets a little time elapse before answering the essential question: He was there when the Bundeswehr left for Afghanistan, or at least when the decision was made. And now, nine years later, one of the politicians most involved in that decision passes this verdict on the Afghanistan mission? How can that be?

Stützle finishes stirring and says that this was always his opinion. "I was overruled in this case. I stepped down in October 2002." He allows the idea that he resigned for this very reason to hang unspoken in the air.

The security expert is unimpressed by US General McChrystal's new strategy. "It follows the principal that if aspirin doesn't work, we'll use extra strength aspirin," Stützle says. "Policy can't be made dependent on the strategy of a single general."

This last point is something he has always had difficulty with. Instead of doctoring the strategies, Stützle would rather see leaders work on an orderly withdrawal. "Terrorists were the catalyst for this mission," he says, "and idealists gave the first answer, but the war must be ended by realists!"

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