“What I have learned from Afghanistan”

12.10.2014 - Interview

In an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on 12 October 2014, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier took stock of Germany’s engagement in Afghanistan.

In an article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on 12 October 2014, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier took stock of Germany’s engagement in Afghanistan.


Afghanistan surprises us time and again. After months of difficult negotiations, the two presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah finally agreed to form a government of national unity. They have thus paved the way for a peaceful handover of power resulting from elections.

The pressure of the international community was crucial here and it paid off. Naturally, the elections did not meet our own standards, and we should not forget that. But the formation of the government in Kabul showed how difficult it is to learn democracy. For democracy is not just about the majority making all the decisions. Rather, it is also about safeguarding the interests of the minority.

The new President, Ashraf Ghani, and his Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, have agreed to share power as fairly as possible. From now on, the two men will share responsibility for ensuring that Afghanistan leaves its bloody past behind. Germany is prepared to continue supporting the country.

No issue has had a greater impact on the foreign policy debate in Germany in the last few years than our engagement in Afghanistan. It began with the attacks of 9/11 and the Bonn Conference in late 2001.

At that time, we recognised that black holes on the world map where international terrorists could recruit, train and plan attacks without hindrance were a threat to our own security. We feared that Germany could become a target for terrorist attacks masterminded in Afghanistan.

The operational mission of NATO and its partners will end this year. Although this is not the end of our engagement, it does mark a turning point. It presents an opportunity to be self-critical and take stock.

We have achieved a number of things through our efforts to help Afghanistan develop: average life expectancy has risen from 45 back then to 60 now, while the mortality rate for both mothers and children has fallen dramatically. More than 200,000 students are enrolled at university. There are asphalt roads, electricity, as well as mobile phones and cars.

And there is something which is not visible at first glance: a civil society with a substantial number of relatively independent media organisations. Today, Afghanistan is ahead of its neighbours India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan on Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

This progress is real. Unfortunately, however, it has not defined how the Afghanistan mission is perceived. For far too much has not been successful for far too long: the drug economy is still flourishing. Corruption at all levels is preventing the modernisation of the economy and state. Many provinces are in the hands of powerful warlords, while violence still prevails in parts of the country. Anyone who had hoped that women would gain equal rights more quickly cannot be satisfied despite the progress made. And yes, radical Taliban Islamists are still around.

That is disappointing. But is it our fault? Would it have been possible to solve all of these problems within twelve years? There are many indications that our biggest mistake was that we raised expectations to an excessively high level – and did too little. We not only wanted to eliminate the security threat emanating from Afghanistan but to also lead the country at breakneck speed into a future based on our own values and world-view.

We were unwilling at that time to admit to ourselves that there was a limit to what was feasible within a short space of time in a country which had endured 30 years of civil war. That is why we have fallen far short of some of our promises. We should not underestimate the consequences which these erroneous expectations have to this very day.

However, we would perhaps go about some things differently in retrospect. Take, for example, the Taliban. They were not involved in the creation of a peace order at the Bonn Conference because it appeared at that time that it was a spent force. We underestimated the Taliban as a political factor for too long.

But at least we have learned from our mistakes, and indeed have rectified them. The ten-point plan I initiated in 2009 enabled us to coordinate reconstruction and development aid ever better. The buildup of the security forces was advanced throughout the country. This made it possible for the Bundeswehr to withdraw 3000 troops this year. We do not have to leave the country head over heels as the Americans had to exit Viet Nam in 1975. We will continue to support the Afghan security forces and will invest 430 million euros in civilian reconstruction aid every year until 2016.

What have we learned? We have to become more active and we must not focus solely on the military sphere. We need to be patient. However, we also need to show humility. We have to accept how difficult it is to change some things from the outside.

Nevertheless, a look at the political world atlas tells me that we should not be too hasty to write off our mission:

In Libya, some states decided to carry out military action to prevent a bloody civil war. However, no-one was willing to become engaged beyond that. Today, the country is in danger of collapsing in the face of the civil war.

In the case of Syria, the international community was unable to agree on a joint approach. This led to a vacuum which the IS terror state proceeded to fill.

In Iraq, we have seen how easily a politically divided multiethnic state can spin out of control. Here, too, IS is stepping into the gap, with disastrous consequences for the entire region.

By comparison, the results of the Afghanistan mission are relatively good. We liberated a country from a terrorist regime and we did not let it sink into chaos. Afghanistan is no longer a breeding ground for international terrorists. Although security and development are still fragile, the country has been transformed. Now, with a new leadership in Kabul, we can work to achieve a peaceful future for Afghanistan. We will continue to provide our support, as friends of the Afghan people.

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