Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière talk about the situation in Afghanistan one week before the International Afghanistan Conference is held in Bonn. This interview was published in the newspaper Bild am Sonntag on 27 November 2011.
Minister Westerwelle, Minister de Maizière, the big AfghanistanConference is being held in Bonnnext week. What can it do for the country’s future?
Westerwelle: There are three things on the agenda for Bonn: placing responsibility for security in Afghan hands by 2014; making progress on reconciliation within the Afghan population; and having the international community pledge explicitly that we will not forget Afghanistan after 2014.
ISAF command is talking about a turning point in the war against the Taliban. Are the Western forces winning the war in the Hindu Kushafter all?
De Maizière: This isn’t about winning a war. What is important is that security in Afghanistan becomes an Afghan responsibility. Security will not be perfect, but it will be sufficient. We are making progress in that regard: this year, we can report a reduction in attacks in the North compared to previous years for the first time. We now have the territorial upper hand in almost the entire region. ISAF troops in the North now have the initiative almost all the time. Afghanistan as a whole is also seeing fewer attacks. This progress needs to be consolidated and taken further.
Minister Westerwelle, you have announced that Germanywill not forget its friends in Afghanistanafter combat troops withdraw in 2014. Who are our friends in the Hindu Kush?
Westerwelle: Our friends are those who oppose international terrorism. Let’s not forget that our primary reason for being in Afghanistan is to protect our own security. However, we also support those who seek to defend fundamental human and civil rights, such as women’s rights. After ten years, it is clear that there can be no military solution for Afghanistan; there can only be a political solution.
At the Conference in Bonn, Afghanistanwill be represented by a country delegation that is supposed to reflect the forces which exist in the country. Does that mean you will meet members of the Taliban in Bonn?
Westerwelle: It is President Karzai who will decide who is on the Afghan delegation. What is important to me is that a respectable proportion of the delegation be made up of women. We mustn’t forget that there are now former members of the Taliban who have renounced violence and stand up for the Afghan constitution; some are even members of parliament.
Would you shake hands with Taliban representatives at the negotiating table in Bonn?
Westerwelle: I have shaken hands with all sorts of people as Foreign Minister. That’s in the job description.
Are the Taliban still our enemy or have they already become indispensable partners in shaping Afghanistan’s future?
Westerwelle: Our goal is a successful reconciliation process. Reconciliation is something that takes place not between friends but between former adversaries. We need to work on making that happen, rather than speculating on who may or may not be prepared to engage in it.
We want to persuade young men who have become tired of these long years of war to turn away from their extremist leaders, respect the constitution and return to their villages. We are helping them to do so by offering employment opportunities, such as in road construction or school building.
Nobody can say whether Afghanistan’s reconciliation process will succeed. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that it has to be attempted. That said, there are principles which cannot be waived.
De Maizière: The soldiers tell me that the violence doesn’t simply emanate from “the Taliban”. There are fighters from outside – including from Germany – criminal networks and a mixture of criminal and political motives. The more you examine the situation, the more difficult it is to define the enemy. In these conditions, the West can’t just say, “You’re the baddies; we shan’t negotiate with you.” We can’t exclude everyone who has ever taken up arms from Afghanistan’s internal reconciliation process. The whole thing will only have a chance of success if enough of the important groups participate.
Are you planning purely civilian cooperation with Afghanistanpost-2014?
De Maizière: My Russian opposite number, Anatoly Serdyukov, recently told me that the Soviet Union made two mistakes when it withdrew from Afghanistan. It withdrew without establishing security structures, and it simultaneously stopped funding aid. Serdyukov urgently advised us not to repeat those two mistakes. It goes without saying that we will carry on helping financially. We mustn’t just write cheques, however; we need to maintain a human presence in Afghanistan too. That means, for example, that we will be providing support after 2014 in the form of soldiers responsible for training. They would not be combat troops, but they may be members of combat units seconded to train Afghan combat troops. And they would be well enough armed to defend themselves.
Is it feasible that German troops could be stationed in the Hindu Kushindependently of the US forces?
Westerwelle: No. We Germans constitute around four percent of the current contingent of troops. It is essential that the international community continue to work together on engaging in Afghanistan.
De Maizière: The message that the ISAF states will carry on acting in concert is an important one politically. We need Turkey; we need Mongolia. The more states are involved, the better. It must not be possible to misconstrue this as an East-West issue or as action by Christians against Muslims.
What are the next concrete steps in the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans?
Westerwelle: I am expecting President Karzai to announce by the beginning of the Conference which regions will be next to have the Afghan side take over responsibility for security. Thomas de Maizière and I have agreed that overall command in Feyzabad will pass into civilian hands before December is out, meaning that the Federal Foreign Office will take over there.
Hundreds of German soldiers have come back from Afghanistanhaving suffered severe physical or psychological trauma. Can they assume they will receive care from the state and recognition from society?
De Maizière: The German Bundestag has just passed a vote, with the support of all parties, ensuring material improvements in the situation of soldiers who return from Afghanistan physically injured or mentally scarred. But of course money can’t solve all problems. You can’t legislate to make people care for one another; that has to come from society itself. After 1945, the sad fate of disabled veterans was a prevailing feature of German public life. Since then attitudes towards people with disabilities have come a long way. Now, German society needs to be aware that people bearing the scars of war are once again part of German life – and that those people need our recognition.
This interview was conducted by Michael Backhaus and Martin S. Lambeck and reproduced by kind permission of Bild am Sonntag.