Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the German Bundestag in the debate on the extension of the Bundeswehr’s participation in the ISAF mandate in Afghanistan

13.02.2014 - Speech

-- verbatim report of proceedings --

Mr President, Colleagues,

We are deciding for the last time about the extension of the ISAF mandate for Afghanistan. After twelve years, the Bundeswehr’s longest, hardest and – in terms of lives lost – most costly combat deployment is drawing to a close at the end of this year. I am certain that in this House, too, we will continue debating the success or failure of this mission. That’s quite normal: looking at the lessons we’ve learned. What we need to analyse – also for the sake of future deployments abroad – is this: What can really be achieved, and what cannot? Evaluating that is the job of the public, and also of this Parliament.

But, dear colleagues, all that should not cause us to forget that it was members of the Bundeswehr and of many civilian relief services, as well as police officers and diplomats, who have put their lives on the line in Afghanistan over these past twelve years. That’s why I wish to begin by expressing my sincere thanks to the thousands of men and women who, in the twelve years from 2002 to 2014, did more than their duty in Afghanistan. My sincere thanks to all of them!

(Applause from the SPD, the CDU/CSU and ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS)

Of course, I suspectsome will say, perhaps even in today’s debate: twelve years in Afghanistan are twelve lost years.

(Applause from the MP Gehrcke (THE LEFT PARTY))

Yes, I was expecting that.

(Volker Kauder (CDU/CSU): That’s a Pavlovian reflex!)

We should beware of reflexes like that. Does anyone remember how it all began? 3000 killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, Islamist attacks in Bali, Djerba and Casablanca. In all of those places, Germans were among the victims.

Didn’t we at the time share the fear that what started in America could spill over to us here in Europe, that people in Berlin, Hamburg or Munich could also become victims? And Europe wasn’t spared. Hundreds died in the attacks in London and Madrid. In Germany, we were spared this fate, but the fear that the Hamburg plotters might have sympathisers who could mount an attack in Cologne, Ulm, Frankfurt or elsewhere was shared by us. At all events, the threat at the time was not an abstract one – it was tangible. It came from attackers whose bloody trail led back to the training camps of Tora Bora and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Well, we may not have done everything right every day we were in Afghanistan – that may be true. But in my view it would have been cynical to do nothing, to send in others to put a stop to those training the terrorists while we stayed here out of harm’s way. It was also a matter of protecting our citizens here in Germany.

(Applause from the SPD and CDU/CSU as well as from members of ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS)

That’s why we decided to go to Afghanistan, along with 40 other nations. Many of the noble goals agreed on at the Petersberg conference in Bonn may not have been attained, but at least Afghanistan is now no longer the key training ground for global Islamist terrorists.

(Volker Kauder (CDU/CSU): Precisely!)

That at least we have achieved. Those of you, my friends, who have not forgotten the years of terror and its victims also know that’s quite an achievement.

(Applause from the SPD and CDU/CSU as well as from members of ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS)

It’s twelve years now since the deployment in Afghanistan began. 2014 is a year of great significance: the international armed forces are ending their combat mission, a new president is being elected, and at the end of this year Afghanistan will be assuming full responsibility for its own security. As thousands of ISAF troops in Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar and elsewhere prepare to return home, we must ask ourselves this question: Were the effort, the deployment of financial resources, the victims and the political risks worth it? And looking ahead to the end of the year, the main question we need to ask is: How can we go about securing what has taken such trouble to achieve in Afghanistan?

There is now a tendency to play down the progress that has been made. After a deployment lasting twelve years – nearly every one of which brought plenty of bad news – the public’s interest has to some extent turned away from Afghanistan. Our record in Afghanistan is a mixed one; it’s not all positive. But in the public debate before us, dressing up the facts is going to be no help at all. Some of the hopes expressed at the Petersberg conference have remained unfulfilled. There is not even a guarantee that what has been achieved in Afghanistan over the past twelve years will endure. But that’s the crucial point: what we have lost sight of in recent years are things that are vital to the people of Afghanistan who have lived through 30 or more years of war and civil war. We have built schools, roads and wells in the country. We have helped ensure that 10 million children – some 40 per cent of them girls – go to school and that the electricity supply in Kabul is more reliable than on the other side of the border, in Pakistan. In many regions of Afghanistan, basic health care is available which, while not up to our standards, has helped markedly reduce infant mortality.

(Marieluise Beck (Bremen) (ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS): And the maternal mortality rate!)

At the weekend, I landed at Mazar e Sharif Airport, which for years was used for military purposes. We have made preparations for its civilian use when the German troops withdraw from the area. It is the only airport – and now the only civilian airport – in the whole of northern Afghanistan, which makes it an economic factor with quite considerable potential.

(Applause from the SPD and the CDU/CSU)

Wherever we could, we have helped foster the emergence of something resembling a vigilant civil society. We are supporting young Afghans – especially young Afghan women – who want to create a more modern, more open society there, in the face of still fierce resistance. After my last visit, I can assure you that these efforts are also bearing fruit. Preparations for the elections show that more people have currently registered to vote than ever before in the past. The technical preparations are fairly good and there are debates between the candidates in assembly halls and on TV, much the same as we see in Western election campaigns.

All this, ladies and gentlemen and dear colleagues, may be seen by many here as too little. But for the Afghans, what I have talked about is a tremendous achievement. It is something worth defending, and it deserves our support.

(Applause from the SPD and the CDU/CSU)

When I say it needs defending, I don’t mean first and foremost by us. It is above all the Afghans themselves who must do the defending. I believe we should continue supporting the Afghans beyond the end of this year, but in different ways than in the past twelve years, on a smaller scale and no longer with a combat mission, but by providing assistance to enable the Afghans to successfully organise the transition from a situation in which others bear the responsibility for their country to assuming it themselves. We not only owe that to the Afghans, we owe it to ourselves, too.

(Applause from the SPD and the CDU/CSU as well as from the MP Marieluise Beck (Bremen) (ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS))

If we are contemplating continuing our engagement after the ISAF mission ends, there must be conditions attached to that. I talked about this for an hour and a half with President Karzai at the weekend. We also talked about the security situation, which – despite all the efforts being made by the Afghan side – is not under control in all areas. That is evident from the continuing, gratifying increase in the number of Afghan security forces – but also from the tragic number of losses. In 2013, nearly 5000 members of the Afghan police and military were killed in the course of duty. This shows that the threat from radical forces in the country continues to be virulent. Of course, there’s no denying that during the presidential elections old conflicts along old ethnic fault lines, of which we still have vivid memories, could flare up again anytime. That’s why I told the President during our lengthy talk that we –probably in concert with our partners in Europe – are more than willing to continue supporting civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan. In my view, that also means getting the Afghan security forces, the police and the army into proper shape. But there are, of course, conditions attached to this. Firstly, we must be welcome. And I think we are – at least that’s what everyone assures us. But it’s not enough to be welcome. The second thing we need is the proper environment – and that also means security environment – to enable us to stay after 2014.

The key to this security environment is, you know that, the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. Only if the fundamentals are in place, if 8000 to 10,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan after 2014, will we be in a position to consider actually assuming some of the responsibility for instructing, training and advising the Afghan security forces. That’s why I told Karzai quite plainly and frankly: it may be a bilateral agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, but we consider it a prerequisite for considering a continuation of our support for Afghanistan.

(Applause from the SPD and the CDU/CSU)

As you know, the agreement has not yet been signed. I discussed the reasons for this and ways of resolving the situation with Karzai. But as things stand – and I want to be quite frank about this – there is no definite schedule for signing the agreement. Karzai stated very clearly – and to my satisfaction – that Afghanistan will sign, but no schedule has yet been set for the signing. That’s why I told him – and this is something that needs to be said in a situation like this – that we as members of the Federal Government have to convince not only the German public but also this Parliament of the need to continue our engagement in Afghanistan.

Vice President Johannes Singhammer:

Minister, will you take a question from colleague Ströbele?

Dr Frank Walter Steinmeier, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs:


Hans Christian Ströbele (ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS):

Minister Steinmeier, did President Karzai explain to you, in the course of the long talk you had with him, why he has not signed? In particular, did he point out that under the terms of this agreement – the details of which remain fuzzy – Afghanistan will relinquish a whole host of sovereign rights, especially vis à vis the U.S. troops; that, because this has happened repeatedly in recent times, he has reason to fear that the U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan after the actual withdrawal can essentially do as they please – for example, conduct operations in which, once again, civilians, women and children are killed? How did he explain his delay in signing? Did he perhaps say: “I can’t negotiate with the Taliban and at the same time sign an agreement that allows the U.S. to continue its military operations?”

(Applause from the MP Heike Hänsel (THE LEFT PARTY))

Dr Frank Walter Steinmeier, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs:

ColleagueStröbele, exactly the opposite is true. Of course we discussed this matter in great detail. I, too, was interested to know whether the delay in signing is due to the fact that either specific sections of the agreement are still under dispute or require further negotiation or whether, following negotiation of the accord, circumstances have emerged that must also be taken into account in this agreement. He stated unequivocally that the agreement had been fully negotiated and there would be no supplements to it. The Loya Jirga had, he said, approved the agreement. To this extent, it was not a question of the accord’s content, but rather of a precondition that must be met before the agreement is signed. And this condition was, indeed, that Afghanistan’s internal reconciliation process – also involving the radical forces, including the Taliban – must have been set in motion. Ensuring this was his and others’ concern in the coming days and weeks. I hope that can soon be put on record so the agreement can be signed. – Many thanks, Mr Ströbele.

At all events,one thing I made very clear to the Afghan President was this: when we in the German Bundestag talk about post ISAF engagement, the Afghan side appears to see this as something to be taken for granted; but for the German public, that is by no means the case. Signing the agreement is a matter of credibility. The signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement is so important because only once it has been signed can we go into detailed planning of a possible engagement in 2015 and the following years.

Dear colleagues, I’m coming to the end of my speech. It is five years since I first stood at this lectern to request your approval of an ISAF mandate; that was in 2008. I remember well the debate we had here. Back then, quite a few members of this Parliament demanded Germany’s immediate and unilateral withdrawal from the ISAF mission. You will remember that just as well as I do.

(Wolfgang Gehrcke (THE LEFT PARTY): Quite right!)

Mr Gehrcke, I believe we were right to stand by our responsibility and that the principle I upheld in 2008 is still valid today. It is that we go in together and come out together.

We are now about to decide on the final extension of the ISAF mandate. Together with our partners and in keeping with the Security Council resolutions, we will conclude ISAF at the end of this year. On behalf of the Federal Government, I would request your approval.

Thank you very much.

(Applause from the SPD and the CDU/CSU as well as from the MP Tom Koenigs (ALLIANCE 90/THE GREENS))

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