This year, we will be marking the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and we remember that almost 3000 people died in the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as well as in the wrecks of the aeroplanes; thousands more were injured.
For the first and only time in its history to date, NATO responded to the attacks by invoking Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Back then, we reached a joint decision that Afghanistan must never again pose a threat to our security.
We have trodden a difficult path since then. German servicemen and women, police officers and civilians are also among those who have laid down their lives and put their health at risk for our security in Afghanistan.
One thing is clear after all we have seen over the past 20 years, namely that there will not be a military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. It’s not on the cards now, nor will it be in the future. That’s why we want to end our military engagement in Afghanistan, but we want to do so responsibly. We owe this to the people in Afghanistan, we owe it to our allies, and, above all, we owe this to those who have risked and lost their lives in Afghanistan for our security.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have worked to promote intra-Afghan peace negotiations for many years. Since September last year, representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan have finally been negotiating with the Taliban. We have, from the outset, supported these talks with all the means at our disposal – including on the ground with colleagues from the Federal Foreign Office and experts from the Berghof Foundation.
The fact that these negotiations will not be concluded in a few weeks or days after decades of conflict will probably not come as a surprise to anyone. The positions of the respective negotiators are still very far apart. And yet these negotiations, which are now taking place, are the first realistic chance for peace in Afghanistan in a long time, an opportunity that must not be wasted.
And whether we like it or not, the international troop presence in the country remains one of our most important levers in this process. The Taliban will not seriously engage in a political solution in the absence of international pressure. If we hastily withdraw our soldiers, there’s a serious risk that the Taliban will seek a solution on the battlefield instead of continuing to negotiate – with all the dramatic consequences for everything we have built up over the past two decades in Afghanistan together with the people on the ground, with civil society and with the political leadership. We don’t want to pay that price.
Taliban fighters have, already in recent months, intensified their attacks on Afghan security forces and representatives of the state and civil society. That has to stop. Anyone conducting peace negotiations must, as a minimum, be prepared to agree to a ceasefire.
In NATO, we are therefore calling for the situation in Afghanistan and progress in the peace process to go hand in hand with the issue of troop withdrawal. The new US administration is currently reviewing the agreement with the Taliban and its implementation, and is already talking to them about it. We’re engaged in a close and most constructive dialogue with the State Department on this matter – a far cry from the state of affairs over the past four years. The Americans know that we in Germany need clarity on the next steps as soon as possible.
But one thing is already certain, which is that we in NATO want to decide together whether and how long our troops remain in Afghanistan. That, too, is a sea change compared with the situation in recent years. We will decide this together, and we will then also withdraw together.
We’re all acutely aware that the security situation for our troops could deteriorate if they remain in Afghanistan beyond 1 May 2021. That must be said candidly here, because it’s a fact. That’s why we have already taken the necessary protective measures in NATO. At the end of the day, in all the difficult decisions we have to make, the security of our servicemen and women in Afghanistan is our number-one priority.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It’s not an easy situation – not for a parliament either, by the way – to make a decision when peace negotiations are being conducted while the processes are to be dovetailed, yet it isn’t foreseeable at the moment when these peace negotiations will be concluded. So crucial months lie ahead of us right now. During this time, the extension of the mandate that we’re requesting here today will give us the necessary flexibility and, yes, more time. Time to continue to live up to our alliance responsibility, time to give the peace negotiations the space they need, and time to prepare for an orderly withdrawal without leaving behind a dangerous vacuum in Afghanistan.
That is the goal of the mandate extension, and this is about one thing above all else, namely that we want to preserve the achievements of the last few years. After all, despite all the problems and setbacks, much has also been achieved in Afghanistan. Considerable progress has been made in education, healthcare, the rule of law and democracy, and not least in the field of minority rights, human rights and especially the rights of women and children.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The past 20 years have demanded a great deal of us, and that is why I would like to extend my special thanks to all those who have played a part in this – but above all to our servicemen and women. Together with the people of Afghanistan, they have worked hard for two decades to promote the security of and a brighter future for the country. Their achievements and sacrifices should therefore also constitute an obligation for us to end our military engagement in Afghanistan reliably and responsibly as soon as conditions permit, in order to give peace in Afghanistan a real chance.
Thank you very much.