At this time, I am in contact with people who are desperately trying to flee from Afghanistan. I also am in contact with people who left Afghanistan years ago, and with people who have many questions.
Alongside the question of how we can now help people to escape Afghanistan, many are pressed by the question of what lessons should be learned from the fiasco of the War in Afghanistan. 20 years of war in Afghanistan with the participation of the German Armed Forces have not brought peace and democracy. On the contrary: the dramatic images from Afghanistan make clear the failures of western interventionist policy.
In this FAQ, which will be continuously updated, I ask questions and attempt to provide answers.
Why did the USA and the German Armed Forces intervene in Afghanistan?
The terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington served as the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan which began in October 2001. At the time, some argued that by toppling the Taliban, we could fight international terrorism and defend human rights. For the USA, however, it was never about that. In actuality, not a single Afghan was among the 9/11 attackers. The war against Afghanistan promised a fast victory. From the perspective of US foreign policy, a swift victory in Afghanistan would generate the necessary momentum for further goals: the war against Iraq and other so-called „rogue states,“ which the US President George W. Bush described as the „axis of evil.“ The plans for the intervention in Afghanistan had already been in the works for a long time. The goal was to establish geostrategic influence and a military base in the oil-rich Middle East and Southern-Central Asia.
Thus the German Armed Forces began the longest operation in its history. The Defence Minister of the day, Peter Struck of the Social Democratic Party, justified the operation by claiming that “the security the German Federal Republic will be defended in the Hindu Kush.” For the Red-Green Federal Government, it was also an opportunity to demonstrate German military presence and to restructure the German Armed Forces into an army capable of global deployment. The Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer of the Greens, summarised the power interests behind the operation as follows: “the decision, “Germany will not participate,” would mean a weaking of Europe and, eventually, it would mean us losing influence over the design of a multilateral politics of responsibility. This is exactly what is at stake in the coming years.”
For Germany, Afghanistan was first and foremost a testing ground for the restructuring of the German Armed Forces into a global actor. Alongside American counterparts, the German Armed Forces grew into their new duties, gained experience in combat, learned to operate drones and participated in the systematic murder of opposing combatants.
At the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in December 2001, Hamid Karzai was selected to become the new president of the country. Afghan opposition movements were excluded from these negotiations. President Karzai established a patronage system with the involvement of competing warlords, tribal leaders, drug bosses and other powerful groups. Ever since, soaring corruption and a flourishing opium trade characterised both the government of Karzai and that of his successor. This fed the hatred of the Afghan civilian population towards the occupation. The NATO military operation ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) effectively became the military guarantor of the Karzai regime’s security. The NATO allies came to rely on the support of these warlords and corrupt politicians and marketed this arrangement as engagement for human rights and democracy.
Who are the Taliban?
The Taliban are deeply reactionary. Their victory is a new setback for the women of Afghanistan. The origin of the Taliban is deeply interwoven with the endless interventions, occupations, civil wars and corruption in Afghanistan. The Taliban are a product of the US and Pakistani interference in the Afghan-Soviet War in the 1970s, and were initially recruited from destitute religious schools among the refugee camps in Pakistan. With weapons, cash and training, they were supported by Saudi Arabia, the USA, Pakistan and Germany and trained to drive back Soviet influence in the Afghan-Soviet War. The Taliban advocated for the overcoming of tribal mentalities and conflicts among the various warlords and were therefore able to re-establish the unity of Afghanistan under their domination. The left-wing opposition in Afghanistan were, for the most part, marginalised due to their cooperation with the Soviet Union in the War against the civilian population.
The Taliban’s return to power cannot be understood aside from the devastation, which the NATO intervention brought to Afghanistan.
Doesn’t the triumph of the Taliban, and the chaos in the wake of the USA and Germany’s withdrawal, show that the withdraw was a mistake?
With the fall of Kabul, the narrative that the NATO intervention was building a democratic society modelled on western ideals, through the build-up of local security forces, has finally fallen apart. The US-backed government in Kabul was hated. This hatred towards the regime, widely seen as a corrupt puppet government, explains how the Taliban were able to capture all major cities across the country in just a few days without meeting significant resistance.
The suffering, which the 20 year occupation brought to the Afghan people, provided fertile soil for the Taliban to regain its strength.
The German Federal Government and its allies ignored all warnings that the consequences of the war would enable a resurgence of the Taliban. It was not the withdrawal of international armed forces that caused the chaos; rather, the chaos is a consequences of 20 years of war.
Wasn’t the NATO intervention also about women’s rights?
The argument that the war against the Taliban was about values and human rights is hypocritical. Monica Hauser from the women’s rights organisation Medica Mondiale has said, “you don’t need the Taliban, for men to still have deeply misogynistic ideas in their heads.” The NATO-backed government, too, has neglected the rights of women and girls.
The western occupation of Afghanistan brought an improvement of living conditions only to a small minority of women. The majority of the population never benefited from the war. On the contrary, despite massive international assistance, the societal situation is catastrophic. Since April 2020, around 80 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. According to a report from 2019, around 3.7 million children in Afghanistan do not attend school, 60 percent of whom are girls.
Women’s rights were instrumentalised by the Federal Government. The attitude towards women held by the royal family of Saudi Arabia is similar to that of the Taliban, and yet the Federal Government sells weapons to Saudi Arabia. These weapons, in turn, prolong the war in Yemen.
Afghan human rights defenders, journalists, and all those, who have fought for the rights of women, have now been abandoned as Europe shuts its borders to refugees. Human rights are indivisible, and are the first casualties of war.
We were told that it was necessary to first establish security in order for development to be possible. Isn’t that true?
The focus on the establishment of military security in Afghanistan has brought neither peace nor development. On the contrary, the so-called “civil-military cooperation” subordinated civil assistance to military goals.
The humanitarian situation and the human costs of the war are catastrophic. The IPPNW estimates that in the period from 2001 to 2013, 170,000 Afghan civilians were killed directly in the war. 59 German soldiers lost their lives, 35 of whom were killed in attacks or in combat. The involvement of the German Armed Forces has cost more than 12 billion Euros.
In 2020 alone, nearly 9,000 civilians and over 10,000 Afghan soldiers were killed. According to official statistics, at least 3.54 million people are internally displaced within Afghanistan due to the conflict, plus an additional 1.1 million persons displaced due to drought and floods. Over 2.7 million Afghan refugees are registered outside the country.
The Afghan human rights activist and politician Malalai Joya has said, “the intervention has not changed Afghanistan for the better at all. Instead, it has plunged the country deeper into suffering and tragedy.“ For years, The Left has been warning that both the West‘s support for the corrupt Afghan government and the principle of military „security“ were destined to fail and would give the Taliban renewed momentum. This is now exactly what has happened, and the price for it is being paid by the people who now try to flee.
What is the German Government trying to achieve via its mandate for military evacuations?
The German Federal Government has completely failed in the evacuation of vulnerable people from Afghanistan. Despite all warnings, they never had a realistic assessment of the situation and therefore significantly delayed the rescue operation. Bureaucratic obstacles further hindered the early departure of local employees.
For years, the German Government has failed to provide straightforward support to its local support workers and their families in Afghanistan. On the 21st of April this year, as in previous years, the members of parliament from The Left demanded the generous relocation to Germany of local Afghan support workers, and has continued to do so since. On the 22nd of June, the parliamentary faction of The Left demanded the evacuation of all local Afghan support workers. This was rejected by all other parties.
Since the 17th of August, the German Armed Forces have been flying people out of Kabul. Now the Federal Government has given the Armed Forces a mandate which explicitly allows the use of military force throughout all of Afghanistan, according to which German commando forces are to be deployed. German citizens and – pending adequate capacity – employees of international NGOs and “further designated persons” are to be evacuated.
According to the legal services of the German Foreign Office, the still-valid mandate explicitly intends the evacuation as an option for military deployment. This shows that the German Government, with the support of the Federal Parliament, intends to shift the responsibility for the disastrous evacuation onto other shoulders.
The German military has now sent special forces helicopters to Kabul. These are intended for use in rescuing people from difficult-to-reach areas. However, the deployment of German special forces poses an enormous risk of escalation.
The underlying problem is that the group of people eligible for evacuation is tightly limited. Human rights activists and at-risk Afghan civilians are not on the priority list. Many of them have waited desperately at the airport in Kabul over the last few days and have now been turned away. According to reports from people at the scene, chartered civilian airplanes, which were sent to evacuate human rights activists, have being prevented from landing by the US Army. The German Government must put immediate pressure on the USA to ensure that no aircraft are prevented from landing.
The largest group of people attempting to reach safety are internally displaced persons. The do not make it onto the evacuation lists of the US or German governments.
What should The Left demand?
There need to be fast and unbureaucratic efforts to evacuate not only the local Afghan employees of the German Armed Forces, but also the local employees of German international development organisations, human rights defenders, media representatives, and their families. Furthermore, Germany must now put pressure on the US Government, which is in negotiations with the Taliban over the evacuation.
The Left must advocate for the intake and accommodation of all persons who need or want to flee. There must be a massive investment into the UN Refugee Fund for Afghanistan. Deportations must be immediately and permanently stopped. There must be open escape routes into the neighbouring countries around Afghanistan and into, and throughout, the European Union.
What lessons do we need to learn from Afghanistan?
With the defeat of western imperialism in Afghanistan, the interventionalist policy of NATO has failed dramatically. In the German Federal Government, doubts are growing about operations such as in Afghanistan and Mali. What The Left has said all along has proven to be true: democracy, human rights and development cannot be imposed from outside with bombs. The Left must maintain pressure, both within parliament and on the streets, for an immediate stop to foreign military operations and to all weapons exports, and for open borders for all people in need.
This is a translation of a German press statement which was published on 24 August 2021. Translation: Tim Redfern. Reproduced with permission