The Lost War in Afghanistan and a Glimmer of Hope

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main source of the published article: By Peter Carstens / www.faz.net

A year ago, the Taliban invaded Kabul. Berlin had looked the other way for a long time, then left many helpers behind. One who made it out now finds a new future

One year ago, Kabul fell. After 20 years of war and thousands of deaths, the Taliban had brought the United States and its allies to their knees. Head over heels, Americans and Europeans fled the Afghan capital as the victorious Islamists moved in on Aug. 15. Left behind were thousands of former German aid workers and their families.

The government had long resisted flying them out, but now it was too late. Tens of thousands of desperate people crowded the Kabul airport in the August days of last year, desperately hoping to somehow be taken out of the country.

A breakneck mission by the Bundeswehr got some of them out after all. Among them was Najeb F., who had worked as an interpreter at the German embassy. The young man managed to escape. But his four sisters stayed behind, as did his parents. According to German rules, they did not count as part of the “nuclear family,” that is, only spouses and children. In the meantime, Najeb F., who is single, has arrived in Germany.

Then came a dissolution agreement

However, the German Foreign Office, his old employer, did not support him. On the contrary. In August of last year, the German aid worker was almost trampled to death in the crush outside the North Gate at Kabul Airport. Americans beat him with their guns, policemen with sticks, as he reported, he went down. The few personal belongings were ripped from the 28-year-old Afghan’s backpack in the commotion.

Auf einmal sind sie da: Taliban-Kämpfer in Kabul

All that remained of his previous life were some documents and dollar bills, a few photos from his previous officer training, a T-shirt and beige pants. A few weeks later, in the meantime he was living with a German friend near Bonn, another German document arrived: the Foreign Office sent Najeb F. a termination agreement. However, the office keeps in touch with its former “local employees”, some of them are looking after the abandoned embassy in Kabul.

Kabul fell on August 15. Just two days earlier, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) had reported to the German government that such a thing could happen in four weeks at the earliest, and that a capture of the city was “rather unlikely.” According to the intelligence service, the Taliban leadership had “no interest in a military capture of Kabul”. At least, that is what was written in a protocol that circulated in Berlin shortly thereafter. The BND was in good company with its misinterpretation: After two decades in the Hindu Kush, the West knew neither its war opponents nor its Afghan allies.

After all, the assessment that the Taliban could not enter Kabul by force fit with the assumption that the Afghan army would resist fiercely. But it did not. And not because its soldiers could not or would not fight, as was soon reproachfully said in Berlin. But because corruption had eaten away at their leadership and because the Afghan army could not fight at all without massive U.S. logistics.

Hard times are ahead for them: Schoolgirls in Afghanistan :Image: dpa
Hard times are ahead for them: Schoolgirls in Afghanistan :Image: dpa

Where has all the money gone?

What had escaped the attention of the intelligence services and the diplomats was that politicians and generals in the Afghan government had long since organized alternative headquarters abroad and had also set up money deposits there, financed by the aid money from the international community. Corruption in the army had long been known, but little was done about it. The large amount of money that the West has invested in Afghanistan since 2002 has “not always arrived where it was supposed to arrive,” says diplomat Markus Potzel in an overly diplomatic way.

The previous special representative of the German government for Afghanistan and Pakistan was supposed to go to Kabul as ambassador last summer. He is still not there. Recently, Potzel admitted on television that a lot of money had been diverted. America alone had spent $850 billion on the military mission and another $145 billion on civilian reconstruction. At the height of the conflict in 2010/2011, Washington was putting around $100 billion a year into the war. And Germany also spent a total of about 20 billion euros, most of it on the military and its aides, the local forces. Diplomat Potzel says: “The Afghan elites were very comfortable with that, and ultimately so were we. It was kind of a standstill agreement.” So Afghanistan remained one of the most corrupt countries on earth and one of the largest drug-growing areas in the world.

This had benefited the Bundeswehr, which had been camped for years in a camp near Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. A hundred German soldiers held out there, hoping not to disturb the Taliban, warlords and drug lords in the area too much. After all, they would hardly have been able to defend themselves against a massive attack in recent years. All external contacts had virtually ceased, except for a small training mission. At irregular intervals, German instructors were flown by helicopter to their Afghan partner brigade. The overland route was too risky.

Many deserted

For fear of assassins from the ranks of the Afghan army, each German trainer was accompanied by several heavily armed bodyguards. A farce. In the early summer of 2021, a KSK non-commissioned officer who had spent years in Afghanistan reported that no one had ever been able to determine whether and how long the Afghan trainees remained in the army or whether they deserted just as quickly as their comrades. The Bundeswehr, itself poorly equipped and worn out from its often futile efforts, was just quietly holding out in northern Afghanistan, while district after district had long since fallen into the hands of the Taliban.

In June, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) warned of a “mass exodus”. Until the very end, the Foreign Office prevented staff from leaving the country in order to avoid the impression of panic. The development aid ministry had also long refused to withdraw its staff. Current documentation, such as that published by Der Spiegel, suggests that when the Afghan state collapsed, the German government’s crisis team ignored, and even suppressed, all warnings from the chargé d’affaires in Kabul and also from the local security forces.

State Secretary Antje Leendertse is repeatedly mentioned in this context. She now represents Germany as ambassador to the United Nations in New York. She will soon be able to present her view of the disaster in German foreign policy to a Bundestag committee of inquiry that is due to begin soon.

 Away - at almost any price: Scene from the airport tarmac on August 16, 2021 :Image: dpa
Away – at almost any price: Scene from the airport tarmac on August 16, 2021 :Image: dpa

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU), on the other hand, is said to have tried long before the end to organize charter planes to Germany for hundreds of local Bundeswehr forces. This failed due to resistance from the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Office. Whether this is true can also be determined by the investigative committee. All three ministries became embroiled in weeks of paragraph battles last summer. Meanwhile, a deportation flight with rejected asylum seekers took off from Germany on July 7. Little was done for local forces, but deportations, which Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) in particular pushed for, were not suspended until Aug. 11, four days before Kabul fell. One consequence of the policy of the then coalition of the CDU/CSU and SPD was that in the end some 30,000 beneficiaries of protection were left behind in Afghanistan. Only individuals like Najeb F. made it.

Experienced diplomats, no longer on duty, say in confidential conversations that the reports from Kabul, as well as from Islamabad and other places, have long been watered down and softened beyond recognition through official channels. At the end of the day, it was always said that the situation was difficult, but it was getting better. But the actual situation got worse and never better. When the Foreign Office had to admit this years ago, it did not change the so-called “progress reports” on the situation in the Hindu Kush, but simply stopped reporting altogether. Year after year, hardly changed texts were submitted to the Bundestag for mandate extensions for the Bundeswehr. The parliament nodded them off.

Only very few members of parliament still regularly traveled to Mazar to visit the soldiers or tried to gain an insight. Parliament was only moderately interested in its army in the Hindu Kush. When Covid arrived in early 2020, it was all over. CDU politician Roderich Kiesewetter, then representing the government faction in the Parliamentary Control Board, said in retrospect that “the desirable was viewed through political glasses and the dangerous was left out.”

“Aggressive cleanup”

Then-Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had described what was desirable at a NATO meeting in Brussels in March 2021: no “early withdrawal from Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from trying to come to power by military means.” That was directed at President Donald Trump, whose troops remained the only guarantors of the continued existence of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government. The Bundeswehr was neither willing nor able to contribute to the defense of Kabul. In early summer, Mazar concentrated entirely on its own protection and began to sell or move out of the country everything that was not urgently needed – “aggressive housekeeping” was a term that was already circulating in Berlin in early summer. For at the Afghanistan negotiations in Doha, Trump had long since acknowledged imminent defeat.

Washington wanted above all to get out of the longest war in American history. None of the Western allies had raised more to change Afghanistan. With force, with good words, with money and weapons, America’s presidents had spent 20 years trying to turn the Islamist terrorist state into a halfway functioning democracy. Trump now said: let’s get out of here. And his successor, Democrat Joe Biden, did nothing to change that course when the time came.

Trump’s negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned diplomat, had negotiated only with the Taliban in Doha, without the participation of the halfway democratically elected Ghani government or allies. The end result was an agreement in February 2020 that ensured America and its allies free passage on withdrawal. The Taliban adhered to this agreement, and the so-called “peace talks” with the Ghani team were conducted only as a pretense; time was working in their favor.

Returning home quietly

On June 29, the last German soldiers left the country. No one came to greet them on their arrival in Germany. After two decades, the Bundeswehr ended its deployment like a weekend commuter flight. Everyone was to go home, just no ceremony. Kramp-Karrenbauer was not in the country, the Inspector General had other things to do, members of the Bundestag were informed late or not at all about the imminent landing of the last Afghanistan soldiers. Politicians turned their backs on the returnees.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the West’s house of cards collapsed. At the beginning of July, the Americans had already abruptly evacuated their Bagram airbase without informing their Afghan comrades. By then, at the latest, it was clear that the Afghan army was on its own. Most of the generals began to leave for foreign countries. On August 14, Mazar-i-Sharif fell. The Taliban now ruled in the former German camp as well. Meanwhile, calls for help for the local forces grew louder and louder in Germany.

The government came under pressure, especially from the Green opposition under chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock. Some civil rights activists, filmmakers, journalists got together to organize flights from Kabul themselves. Against much opposition, they proved that it was very possible to help at least those people to whom Germany owed a debt. Little by little, the volunteers of “Kabul Airlift” became indispensable helpers of the defaulting state. To this day, they organize escape routes, rent safe houses in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, and accompany those seeking protection through German bureaucracy and legal norms.

 Some of 5340: Rescued in an A400M of the Bundeswehr :Image: dpa
Some of 5340: Rescued in an A400M of the Bundeswehr :Image: dpa

More than 3,500 men, women and children have been taken out of Afghanistan in this way to date. The new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has ordered the office to change course. In the meantime, more than 20,000 people have been brought to Germany from Afghanistan – former local staff, Afghan employees of international organizations, but also men and women who had been active in Afghanistan as lawyers, members of parliament or journalists. On a trip to Pakistan in June, Baerbock ostentatiously took female employees of “Kabul Airlift” and other private aid organizations with her on a government plane.

5340 were flown out

The Afghan refugees received comparatively little help from the breakneck rescue operation ordered by Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer shortly after the fall of Kabul: On August 17, a force of around 250 soldiers launched a high-risk evacuation mission with six A400M military transports. While the first two A400Ms circled over Kabul and then the first plane plunged into chaos in a kind of controlled crash, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) set other priorities: Meanwhile, she sat in Berlin’s Delphi cinema for a film premiere. A documentary about female politicians was shown: “Die Unbeugsamen”. More distance to the Bundeswehr could hardly be demonstrated.

Day and night, the men and women under the command of Brigadier General Jens Arlt in Kabul once again risked everything to save as many people as possible from the coming terror of the Taliban. They succeeded. 5340 people from 40 nations were flown out over the next nine days. Among them were about 1,000 Afghans, including Najeb F. When you see and hear the former embassy interpreter speak these days, you meet a man with hope, but also in worry. Single-handedly, he first organized another language course, then completed his law degree in Kabul by distance learning. Now the young lawyer is planning to study for a master’s degree in Münster. He will start in October and has received a scholarship from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is a great joy.

But there is also sorrow. Najeb has four sisters. Two of the girls went to high school in Kabul. The school was closed by the Taliban. So was the third sister’s school for the blind. The fourth studied engineering, but is now only allowed to be taught by women; the supply is minuscule. There is no future for girls and women in Afghanistan, says Najeb. He does not understand why he is not allowed to bring his sisters to Germany.

Two stayed behind at first

General Arlt’s mission ended after nine days in a massive explosion. At Abbey Gate in the north of the airport, where the German soldiers had just been standing, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the afternoon of August 26. Warnings had been issued for days. No one was able to stop the “Islamic State” (IS) bomber. 170 people died, including 13 American soldiers. The Germans, already preparing to take off, left immediately. Arlt initially had to leave behind two of his soldiers, who had sought shelter in an American dugout after the detonation.

The decision to leave the two men behind for the time being was “the most difficult military decision of my life,” Arlt said recently in a Bundeswehr video. In the end, even the two stragglers got out of Kabul. Three days later, Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division, was the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan. Arlt and his soldiers were greeted with a big station in Germany this time. The minister and her general hugged each other on the airfield, huge was the relief to have made it without own losses, to have saved at least a few hundred. Heiko Maas, who like Kramp-Karrenbauer and Horst Seehofer would soon no longer be a minister, traveled extensively in the last days before the Bundestag elections to open borders in the Afghan neighboring states for Afghanistan refugees who were on German lists, with several hundred million euros in his suitcase. Live in Islamabad, the dejected minister and his political director Jens Plötner watched as a first convoy made its way from Kabul to Pakistan.

Maas had offered his resignation to Olaf Scholz, the candidate for chancellor. Scholz thought that would not help now. But when the government was formed, Maas was no longer considered. In the meantime, there is extensive documentation of the events. Those responsible at the time – Chancellor Angela Merkel, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, but also Kramp-Karrenbauer or Maas – have consistently not been involved. Chancellor Merkel, whose entire term in office was always accompanied by Afghanistan, had said goodbye to it with a short statement on August 17. Among the many thousands who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent years were 59 Bundeswehr soldiers. When Merkel briefly visited General Arlt and his soldiers four weeks later, the outgoing chancellor briskly walked down the ranks and. She did not find a public word of appreciation.

Salih Demir

Salih Demir lives in Germany. He is interested in politics and economy. Germany editor of -ancient idea- fikrikadim.com