Officially, the Afghanistan conference set to kick off in Bonn on Monday is, according to the German Foreign Ministry website, intended to "solidify together with Afghanistan the long-term engagement of the international community and to advance the political process in the country."
Unofficially, however, many see the gathering, which will bring Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai together with NATO foreign ministers, as but a prelude to withdrawal. US President Barack Obama has begun the American drawdown and has said it will be complete by 2014. His NATO allies, including Germany, have followed suit, with Germany planning to reduce its presence in Afghanistan by 950 troops by the beginning of 2013. The remaining 4,400 troops are to leave by the end of 2014.
NATO has referred to the process as a handover of security responsibility to Afghanistan. But a report in the German tabloid Bild on Friday, citing secret US military intelligence documents as well as confidential German military documents, indicates that military officials in both countries believe that civil war in Afghanistan will be the result.
The paper quotes what it describes as a secret, collaborative appraisal by the US and German militaries as saying: "When the ISAF troops leave the country, there will be civil war." (Eds. note: Quote translated from the German.) The paper says that once withdrawal is complete, leaders of the insurgency, who are currently in Pakistan, "will return to Afghanistan."
'Meeting Our Goals'
While it is certainly no secret that the situation in Afghanistan remains far from stable, the pessimism displayed in the secret documents stands in stark contrast with the message political leaders have been eager to convey. Just in June, when Obama announced the beginning of the US drawdown, he said that troop reduction had become possible because "we are meeting our goals."
In a message posted on the German Foreign Ministry website, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also does not question that Afghanistan forces will be able to take over full responsibility for security in the country in 2014. Westerwelle has been a leading voice in Germany pushing for withdrawal, driven by widespread voter frustration over the length and cost of the engagement.
NATO officials have been careful to warn that the international engagement in Afghanistan, particularly when it comes to training security forces and to economic reconstruction, will continue long after the combat troops have been withdrawn.
The Bild story also claimed that the documents contained indications that the Afghanistan intelligence service had participated in attacks on the German military, and that German weapons had ended up in the hands of Taliban fighters.
The revelations printed in Bild are the first time that high-level doubts about the efficacy of NATO's engagement in Afghanistan have reached the public eye. Several analysts have openly doubted whether the international community will be able to beat back the Taliban sufficiently by 2014 to enable Afghanistan's military and police forces to maintain control. Just this autumn, a top German general said that the mission in the country had failed.
A Negative View of the War
"The mission fulfilled the political aim of showing solidarity with the United States," Harald Kujat, formerly Germany's top-ranked soldier and a leading planner of Germany's mission to Afghanistan 10 years ago, told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung in October. "But if you measure progress against the goal of stabilizing a country and a region, then the mission has failed."
General Stanley McChrystal, who led the Afghanistan troop increase ordered by Obama in 2009, likewise voiced his doubts this autumn. He said that the US and NATO were only "50 percent of the way" toward achieving the goals they had set for themselves.
In addition, the Afghanistan War Logs released by WikiLeaks last year and reported on extensively by SPIEGEL and other major news outlets provided a view of the war that opened the public's eyes to the difficulties faced by the operation.
Merkel Demands Political Reconciliation
The civil war concerns would appear to be well founded. When the Soviet Union pulled out following its own less-than-successful attempt to pacify the country in the late 1980s, Afghanistan quickly descended into a decade of civil war. It was out of that war that the Taliban -- and a safe haven for al-Qaida -- emerged.
Increasingly, many have come to the conclusion that the only possibility to achieve peace in Afghanistan is via negotiations with moderate members of the Taliban. In an interview with the Bonn daily General Anzeiger published on Friday, Merkel said "not everyone who at one point fought for the Taliban stands permanently in the way of a peaceful development. Many of these people can and should contribute to a stabile future for Afghanistan."
"Afghanistan needs an internal process of political reconciliation, and externally it needs to be embedded in good partnerships with its neighbors," Merkel continued. She said that the West wants to avoid "repeating the errors of others in the past," and pledged that Afghanistan would not be left to its own devices even after 2014. "The goal in Bonn is to strengthen Afghanistan ahead of the transition phase."