Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the German Bundestag on Afghanistan

08.09.2009 - Speech

In a speech to the German Bundestag, Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged that the air strikes in Kunduz not be judged until they have been carefully examined. Germany did not rush headlong into its commitment in Afghanistan, he went on, and for that reason it must not rush out again.

Mr President,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As of yet, we do not know exactly how many people lost their lives in the air strike that took place last Friday in Afghanistan. As of yet, we do not know how many of the victims were civilians. But we do know one thing for certain: this air strike was more than just an unfortunate incident, and in the wake of this event, of course we cannot just easily move on to the other items on our agenda. Whether we like it or not, the events of last Friday morning have turned the spotlight on our Afghanistan mission and pushed it into the public eye again. Of course I understand that an event like this merits a public discussion. I also understand that there are going to be discussions not just here at home, but also in other European countries and abroad.

There is one thing, however, that I don’t understand and which we cannot just simply accept: namely the fact that there have been preliminary condemnations, also abroad, before the investigations have even been concluded. That is why I have been on the phone with many European foreign ministers since last weekend to tell them that they’re going to have to wait, just like we are, until a public judgement can be made on whether the mission was justified or not.

I made phone calls not only to my European counterparts but, most importantly, also to my Afghan counterpart Mr Spanta two days ago. On behalf of the German Government, I expressed sympathy for those victims who were possibly innocent. Above all, I reassured him that our philosophy and understanding of the mission had not changed.

No one in this chamber was naive enough to believe that the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan could be won by military means alone. Long before others, we said that joint success in Afghanistan would only be possible if we helped this population that has suffered through 30 years of war and civil war to get back on its feet. We have always said, if it is necessary to take action against terrorist forces, civilian casualties must be avoided – and this has not changed. This was our policy in all NATO bodies. I am pleased that we succeeded in getting others to agree to this. But at the same time I know that whatever the result of the current investigation is, it is certainly not going to make things easier overall. I can see that right now on the streets. There are many people out there who are searching for simple answers. People are holding up signs saying “Get out of Afghanistan immediately”. On a human level, I can identify with that. It’s unpleasant. It’s agonizing. It’s not happening quickly enough; it’s dangerous. But I also have to say, as much as I can understand the human tendency to drop tasks that are unpleasant, to want nothing to do with it, at the same time it is politically and historically irresponsible and therefore cannot be justified.

In my opinion, many people who act as if there were a simple solution have forgotten a few things – namely that saying no to the Iraq war and yes to a mission in Afghanistan goes hand-in-hand and that there was an event that triggered all of this that we cannot just cynically neglect in such a debate: 3000 victims in the attacks on New York on September 11th. I remember well, because I was also in a responsible position at the time, what the mood in this country was like when attacks on Djerba, Bali and Casablanca came one after the other following the attacks in New York, always with German citizens among the victims. I remember well what it was like when the attacks occurred closer to us, in Madrid and London. I know there was genuine fear in this country that a terrorist threat not only existed, but that terrorists could actually strike here in Germany, too. That is why we got involved. Perhaps we haven’t always done everything right in Afghanistan. I don’t want to make that claim. But no one was naive enough to believe that we could rely exclusively on military action there. We have always focused on reconstruction, long before others did. We have always said, we have to help this nation that has suffered so much get back on its feet. And we have always said, in the end we will only succeed together with the Afghan Government if we win the hearts of the Afghan people. Considering all of these things, I still draw the conclusion that we did not rush headlong into our commitment in Afghanistan. And for that reason we must not rush out again. That is not acceptable. It cannot be justified.

When I say that we must not rush out, I certainly don’t mean – and on this point you are absolutely right, Mr Westerwelle – that the German Federal Armed Forces’ mission in Afghanistan is permanent, nor should it be. The German Federal Armed Forces, along with the other European troops that are there, are not an occupying army. That is why we will not be there forever. Let me tell you something that I said before the events of last Thursday night and Friday morning concerning the election in Afghanistan: the election of a new president in Afghanistan needs to be a turning point. After the elections, things cannot simply continue on as they have been. What we need from the elected Afghan president is clear direction on which steps need to be taken within which time frame to achieve greater Afghan ownership. The key objective has always been for the Afghans to be able to guarantee their own security. In my opinion, Mr Schäuble, first and foremost the definitive size of the Afghan police and of the Afghan army has to be determined in order to achieve this objective. We still do not have an agreement with the Afghan Government on this issue. It is time to come to an agreement on this.

In addition, training standards for the Afghan army and Afghan police as well as equipment standards must be determined and – Mr Westerwelle, you mentioned this in connection with the police; the police officers you mentioned include only those who are on a mission within the European framework; in addition to those police officers we have the police officers who are participating in a bilateral police training project, but your basic point is correct – of course we also need a clear division of responsibilities within the international community so that it is clear who is responsible for what.

The appropriate forum for arranging all of this and concluding clear agreements with the new Afghan President is the Afghanistan Compact. It is due to be renegotiated. In this Afghanistan Compact we need to outline a clear vision for gradually handing over our responsibilities to the Afghans, this is my goal. I have been promoting this approach for weeks and I can report that there is growing support, at least among my European colleagues. My view is that this is the only way, but at the same time it is an honest and responsible way, to gain a perspective on the duration and quality of our mission in Afghanistan and also to be able to gauge when the number of German troops in Afghanistan can be reduced; and let me emphasize that this perspective must be accompanied by a clear timeline. I have the following appeal to all of you, members and non-members of parliament: please, let’s not fool the public into thinking there is another way.

On a final note, I still vividly remember my last visit to Afghanistan. I spoke with a young soldier just 24 hours after an attack on a patrol in which two of his comrades were killed. We talked for a long time and at the end of our discussion he said to me: “Mr Foreign Minister, you can be sure that we know why we’re here; we won’t leave this country while it’s still in the Stone Age.”

Those of us here at home, in my opinion, should not demonstrate a lesser level of responsibility than the German soldier in Afghanistan.

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