Photo Gallery: German Doubts about Afghanistan


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.
Von 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!"

Save What Is Still Possible to Save

Stützle can clearly remember a session of the Bundestag's Foreign Affairs Committee shortly before Christmas 2001. Rudolf Scharping, defense minister at the time, wasn't present, which meant Stützle had to field the parliamentarians' questions. One representative, Volker Rühe of the then opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), made things difficult for Stützle, seeming to understand exactly where the Achilles' heel in the plan was.

Stützle and Rühe recently ran into one another at an event hosted by the Körber Foundation and both recalled that memorable committee session. Both the former defense minister from the CDU and the former state secretary from the SPD found it didn't take long for them to agree on Afghanistan now.

During his term as defense minister in the 1990s, Rühe ended the practice of allowing Germany to buy its way out of participation in foreign missions. He put an end to former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's methods, initially against resistance from the chancellor himself. Like Stützle, Rühe finds the topic hasn't released its hold on him, although he has since left government. He's a man with the demeanor of a chancellor, and has never been one to beat around the bush.

"Wrong and dangerous!" Rühe says. "Germany's security is being defended in the Hindu Kush? This rationale is wrong and dangerous!" He then elaborates, "The Taliban have a regional agenda. As odious as they may be, they don't want to attack Hamburg and New York."

But what about back then? Afghanistan was made out to be the cradle of terrorism, the base from which Osama bin Laden coordinated the Sept. 11 attacks. "The operational capabilities for the dreadful 9/11 attacks were not acquired in Afghanistan, but in Hamburg," Rühe replies, "and the ability to fly and hijack airplanes was gained in the US!"

Avoiding Another Vietnam

Rühe favors an orderly withdrawal. "It's wrong to stay there and have 100,000 soldiers on site -- that's effectively delivering the equivalent of a World Trade Center directly to their door."

For Rühe the only thing that speaks against withdrawing now, immediately, is the future of NATO, an alliance that has become mired in a wearying war with a structurally far inferior opponent. Then he drops the V-word. "If we just run away in a disorderly fashion," Rühe says, "if we end up with pictures like those out of Saigon, like those out of Vietnam, that will harm NATO."

Vietnam is America's greatest trauma. It's a war that was eventually continued only for the sake of saving face, a war in which people on both sides continued to die for that reason alone.

The red brick building at the end of this street near Neuruppin, a town in northeastern Germany, could easily be at the end of the world too. This is where Harald Kujat has retired to raise horses. Two mares stand in the stable, foals with clumsy, long legs and scraggly, stubby tails lying in the straw at their feet.

Kujat is the man who advised Chancellor Schröder on matters of war. He was inspector general of the Bundeswehr and later chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Some within the Defense Ministry say Kujat was in such a hurry to send the Bundeswehr everywhere -- especially to Afghanistan -- for his own career reasons.

Kujat was unmoved by this criticism then and he remains unmoved today. Schröder declared full solidarity and "after Schröder announced this and NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history, there was no other alternative," he says impassively. Article 5 states that an attack against one member of the alliance is considered an attack against all.

Following Schröder's verdict, Kujat says, "we had to try to make the best of it. That meant, first and foremost, preventing demands being made that we couldn't fill militarily or didn't want to fill politically."

Shortly after Sept. 11, Kujat flew to meet Tommy Franks, Commander of the United States Central Command at the time, to discuss what Germany could do. The decision included, among other things, sending 100 members of the Special Forces Command, an elite unit of the Bundeswehr, to Afghanistan.

"Really," Kujat says over coffee and rhubarb pie, "the job wasn't so challenging. But the Americans' sense of their mission demanded that democracy be introduced immediately." The nations leading the operation, he says, also failed at civilian and governmental reconstruction in Afghanistan. "In retrospect, a military administration would have been a better idea in the first years."

'A De Facto Stalemate'

His wife comes in from training one of the foals. "Would you like a Trakehner foal?" she asks and Kujat laughs. The little foal, he explains, is a bit stubborn. "A real East Prussian," he smiles. Kujat himself comes from Mielke, in what was once West Prussia.

"What we need," he continues, "is a central institution, similar to what was set up in the Balkans, with the authority to impose civilian and military measures upon the Afghan government. Basically, the UN, NATO and other institutions need to make up for what they missed out on in the beginning with the introduction of a military administration. That would be the only way to save what it's still possible to save."

Kujat's words too sound like the lament of a man who no longer really believes this will end particularly well: "We'll define a final status and then define it as having been reached. It will end up as a de facto stalemate."

Save what is still possible to save, in other words.

Justifying the mission has grown more and more difficult -- so difficult, it has toppled a president here at home and entire governments elsewhere. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende owes his fall from power to Afghanistan. The Netherlands, along with Canada, plan to withdraw from Afghanistan soon. US President Barack Obama has set 2011 as his deadline, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks of a "responsible hand-off."

Helmut Schmidt, who served in the German Armed Forces during World War II and was later the country's defense minister and then chancellor, gave a historical and highly personal speech at a Bundeswehr swearing-in ceremony in front of the Reichstag two years ago. The speech was one that got under listeners' skin, its high point being when Schmidt, a member of the SPD, declared to the 500 recruits, "You should be aware that your service may entail risks and dangers. But there is one thing that you can rely on: This state will not misuse you." The SPD party leadership has commented lately that now would be a good time for the former chancellor to evoke that statement again, and raise the question of whether the promise he made two years ago can still be kept today.

Crossing the Pain Threshold

This particular journey to meet the old political fighters is drawing to a close. It's been a series of meetings with contemplative men, men who were at odds in the past, and still don't agree today on how sensible this war still is. Belief in the war, though, has disappeared across the board.

And when it comes to the war's victims, even old opponents Kujat and Stützle find themselves reconciled. "God willing," Stützle said in Café Weyers, "God willing, the number of casualties will not increase any more, but the increase is part of the logic of McChrystal's new strategy."

Since that conversation took place, 25 more ISAF soldiers have died in Afghanistan. Struck said at Hotel Berlin, "In these questions, ones of great international import, politicians can't go chasing after public opinion." That's a bold position, but is it possible to maintain?

Kujat in his red brick house at the end of the world said, "Discussions will start when the pain threshold is crossed. The German population wouldn't stand for a number of casualties comparable to what Canada has suffered. That would be politically untenable." Canada has lost 147 soldiers so far and is now calling for a withdrawal. Germany has currently lost 43.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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