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“The high point in the Afghanistan mission has been reached” (Interview)

02.12.2011 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the AfghanistanConference in BonnPublished in the Rheinische Post newspaper on 2 December 2011

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Pakistanis considered to be the most important partner for peace in Afghanistan.Has the AfghanistanConference in Bonnbeen reduced to a diplomatic talking shop now that Pakistanhas announced it won’t be participating?

No, of course not. Let me say firstly that I feel sympathy and understanding for Pakistan’s grief after the killing of more than 20 Pakistan soldiers. The talks with Pakistan’s Government will be continued. Pakistan has been involved in the talks leading up to the conference. However, the success of the Conference doesn’t depend on any one country. If Pakistan weren’t to take part, it would be a setback but would not signify the Conference’s failure. Our aim is to help build a peaceful Afghanistan which is no longer a source of danger to people in other parts of the world. That is not only a matter of concern to countries in the region but to the international community as a whole.

How hopeful are you that Pakistanwill change its mind?

As I said, we’re in contact with the Pakistan Government.

What should be the message of the AfghanistanConference?

The message should be that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is very much in the interest of the international community and that we won’t turn our backs on the country once the combat troops have been withdrawn at the end of 2014. How the world deals with Afghanistan after so many years of violence could serve as an example for resolving conflicts in other parts of the world.

The crucial point is that there can only be a political solution. That will require good governance, an inclusive intra-Afghan reconciliation process, as well as the political and economic engagement of the international community.

More than 50 dead German soldiers.Was it nevertheless right to send our troops to Afghanistan?

The appalling terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, which claimed the lives of several thousand people, were the starting point for the joint fight against Islamist terrorism and for our military engagement in Afghanistan. We didn’t go to Afghanistan with our allies back then to drill wells and build roads. Rather, we went to defend our security. That was the right thing to do. The German soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan are heroes. There’s no question about that in my mind.

However, the international military mission cannot continue indefinitely. The high point has now been reached. For the first time in ten years, our troop numbers our being drawn down. The task now is to find a political solution.

Can the withdrawal schedule still be changed?

Every timetable is subject to the actual development of a given situation. That’s just common sense. President Karzai has now announced the next regions in which responsibility for security is to be handed over to Afghanistan. By the end of this month, the Afghan authorities will have assumed responsibility for around one half of Afghanistan’s territory. That’s a genuine step forward.

What will happen to Afghanistanafter 2014?

We have to let go of the idea that we can transform Afghanistan into the Switzerland of south-central Asia. The country’s culture, traditions and political structures are very different. Our goal is an adequate level of good governance, a committed fight against Islamist terrorism and respect for fundamental civil and human rights. That would be a great achievement. Of course, women’s rights is another matter of considerable importance to us. I’m pleased that women account for a sizeable portion of President Karzai’s delegation.

And reconciliation with the Taliban is also an aim?

Reconciliation is not something that takes place between friends but between adversaries. We have to give young people who have allowed themselves to be led astray by hate-filled ideology a new perspective. But that can only happen if they renounce violence, lay down their arms and accept the constitution. That would enable us to drive a wedge between them and fundamentalist leaders.

How long will the process of state-building last?

It’s certain to go on for many years to come. I would caution against exaggerated expectations. The truth is that Afghanistan is far away for many Germans. We see the state dignitaries and read about terrible violence. Having visited Afghanistan many times, I have another impression of the country: I’ve seen girls who, after an initial shyness with a foreign guest, cautiously smile and shake hands. I’ve seen boys learning to use a skateboard proudly demonstrate daring stunts. Hope for a happy life and an end to the violence is reflected in their eyes. Our engagement is also about that.

Will German troops remain in the country after 2014?

There will be no German combat troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Naturally, however, we won’t repeat past mistakes and forget all about Afghanistan overnight. On the contrary! The message from the Bonn Conference will be: we will continue in close coordination with our international partners to provide Afghanistan with the assistance it needs and which it has requested. That could include security experts and instructors.

What lessons has Germanylearned from the Afghanistanwar?Will Germans’ attitude to military action change?

For me, that’s a crucial question. The culture of military restraint to which I adhere has the support of a large and broad majority in Germany. Military solutions can only ever be the last resort.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Rheinische Post. The questions were put by Michael Bröcker and Rena Lehmann.

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