Angela Merkel concedes ‘bitter’ Afghanistan defeat for Germany

Emergency Bundestag sitting rips open old scars over debate about military engagement

German chancellor Angela Merkel during the emergency session of the Bundestag in Berlin on Wednesday. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

German chancellor Angela Merkel during the emergency session of the Bundestag in Berlin on Wednesday. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

 

In December 2001, with heavy hearts and deep misgivings, German MPs signed up their military, the Bundeswehr, to the Nato mission in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, with heavier hearts and even more misgivings, Bundestag MPs gave their retroactive support to the frantic evacuation of German aid workers and other citizens, local mission assistants and their families. 

Before the chamber, a wan-faced chancellor Angela Merkel summed up nearly two decades in one word: bitter.

On taking office in 2005 she inherited Germany’s Afghanistan engagement, to which only the United States committed more soldiers. That Bundeswehr soldiers were on the ground at all was a milestone in postwar foreign policy, along with the December 2001 Afghan reconstruction conference near Bonn. 

Deep-rooted public ambivalence towards German soldiers abroad meant that it wasn’t until 2010 that Merkel even admitted the obvious: the Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan were not just digging wells and training locals, they were at war with the Taliban.

A decade ago, asked how she wanted Germany and its Nato allies to leave Afghanistan, the chancellor said: “We want to learn from others’ mistakes in the past and, after handing over responsibility to Afghanistan, leave it to its fate.”

Concession of failure

Those fateful words hung over Wednesday’s sombre concession of failure in the Bundestag chamber.

“The new reality is bitter but we have to deal with it, our goal now must be to retain as much of the change we reached in Afghanistan,” she said, calling for conditional talks with the Taliban and promising €600 million in total emergency aid to the United Nations. “I am and remain convinced that no violence and no ideology can hold up forever people’s desire for freedom, justice and peace.”

Like other Nato states in Afghanistan, Germany was caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban’s advance on Kabul. Accusations are flying as to why Berlin took longer than the US, the UK and others to get its evacuation mission off the ground.

As the window for evacuations begins to close, almost 500 German soldiers in Kabul have rescued some 4,600 people from 45 nations – including Ireland.

Barely a month before Germany’s federal election, Wednesday’s emergency Bundestag sitting ripped open old scars running through Germany’s debate on military engagement.

Demands by the Merkel coalition not to politicise the Afghanistan defeat in Berlin have been disregarded by those struggling most ahead of the September 26th poll.

Following the chancellor was Alexander Gauland, parliamentary co-leader of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). He said the Taliban had “pulverised” 20 years of western engagement in weeks and asked, with a nod to the Bundeswehr’s 59 deaths: “How many girls in schools equal a dead German soldier?”

“In Afghanistan, the idea of ‘one world’ and the export of western lifestyle has failed with a crash,” he said and demanded German soldiers on borders to defend the country from a looming “flow of people whose style of life is completely alien to us”.

Refugees

The AfD is working hard to refresh memories of the 2015-2016 crisis, when more than a million refugees and asylum seekers arrived in Germany. The struggle to process so many new arrivals, and a series of violent and fatal attacks by some young men, helped the AfD to nearly 14 per cent in the 2017 election and made it the largest opposition party in the outgoing Bundestag.

Now stuck on 10 per cent, the AfD has struggled to capitalise on the Afghanistan insecurity – in part because Merkel’s would-be chancellor successors have both ruled out an open-border approach.

Both Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Armin Laschet and Social Democratic Party (SPD) hopeful Olaf Scholz have insisted regional assistance must be prioritised over accepting Afghan refugees.

Opposition Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock described such an approach as cynical. Days before Kabul fell, Berlin pressed for deportations of failed Afghan asylum seekers to Kabul, she said, while simultaneously delaying the evacuation to Germany of local Afghans who assisted the Bundeswehr.

“They will now remain there,” said Baerbock, “we will not get them out – people with small children”.

For Dietmar Bartsch, Bundestag head of the Nato-critical Linke (Left) party, the “failed Afghanistan operation” marked the “lowest point” in Merkel’s dwindling four-term chancellorship.  

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