Why Germany Must End its Deployment in Afghanistan

Por • 19 feb, 2011 • Sección: Internacionales

Jürgen Todenhöfer

Sleet was driving against our faces that cold, wet evening in Tübingen in December 1984. I was a member of the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, representing the electoral district of that southwestern German city, famous around the world for its prestigious university. Together with the Junge Union, the youth organization of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), I was protesting the Soviet Union’s war in the Hindu Kush, which had already been raging for five years.

«Freedom for Afghanistan!» we shouted into the night, though no one in Moscow could hear us. A few days later, I read that Russia’s defense minister had awarded another round of medals to soldiers for their bravery.

Back then, hardly any other issue united parties across Germany’s political spectrum as much as our shared opposition to that war. So how is it that now, over 25 years later, the CDU is so unified in its support for war? How can it be that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — former Chancellor Willy Brandt’s party of peace — and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) — former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s party of nonviolence — are marching almost blindly in lockstep? Or that the Green Party, which once pledged to beat swords into plowshares, can’t find the strength to deliver a clear «no»?

Perhaps it’s understandable why, in the emotional hours after the 9/11 attacks, no German politician could muster the courage to tell our American friends that we wouldn’t take part in any wars. What’s harder to explain is why, more than nine years later, our politicians are still tagging along. Is it just that we’re nervous about upsetting our NATO partner?

The ongoing debate over which conditions might possibly allow Germany to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 includes an element of the absurd, as Berlin shoots worried glances toward Washington, wondering if its big brother really will withdraw by 2014. After all, the great unspoken stipulation among Germany’s hawks is that if the United States decides to push back its own withdrawal date, our leaders will also be able to find some rationale for staying. Indeed, when it comes to worries about upsetting our NATO partner nothing has changed.

There’s something eerie about a withdrawal put off for four years. It basically means that we’re expecting the Afghans to live through another stretch of war lasting as long as World War I. In 1988, Gorbachev would have found himself buried under a mountain of scorn if he had solemnly announced that he might «possibly» withdraw his combat troops in four years — or perhaps even a bit later. Indeed, the West’s promise to maybe withdraw from Afghanistan in four or more years sounds a lot like a chain smoker’s vow to kick the habit sometime, somewhere down the line.

In recent years, I haven’t met a single politician capable of explaining convincingly — and for more than 10 minutes — exactly what NATO is doing in Afghanistan. In fact, most of these conversations end with a shoulder shrug of resignation. After all, they argue, an alliance is an alliance, and superpowers can’t simply drop out of wars.

The Four Lies about the War in Afghanistan

Since no one really wants to repeat such platitudes, they prefer to tell fairy tales like the ones they used with Iraq. Their hands hold swords, while their mouths tell lies. When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, there are four lies:

The first lie says we’re there to fight international terrorism. Even David Petraeus, supreme commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, conceded in May 2009 that al-Qaida is no longer operating in Afghanistan. The organization became decentralized a long time ago, with nerve centers spread around the globe. And al-Qaida’s leaders don’t transmit instructions from Afghanistan anymore because all electronic data traffic in the region is monitored by American drones and satellites.

In Afghanistan, what we’re really fighting is not international terrorists, but a national resistance movement — and, in doing so, we’re creating exactly the thing we claim to be combating. For every civilian we kill, 10 more young people across the globe rise up, determined to strike back with terror. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, called this «insurgent math» in the interview that would ultimately cost him his job. Like a boomerang, our own violence comes back to haunt us in the guise of global terrorism.

The second lie is that we’re there to defend our civilization’s values. I recently held a position teaching constitutional law. I tried to explain to my students that our constitution protects every individual’s dignity. No one can be deprived of his or her freedom without a trial. But where is human dignity being respected in Afghanistan? Every day, two to three Afghan civilians die at the hands of Western troops. By night, nameless American death squads move in to liquidate resistance leaders — and often civilians as well — violating the most basic rules of international law. Young Afghans have sat in the Bagram torture prison for years with no hope of being granted a trial and in conditions worse than at Guantanamo.

Our «defenders of civilization» never considered this worthy of a parliamentary debate. Indeed, since the dawn of colonialism, our involvement in the Muslim world has never been about defending our civilization’s values; it’s about defending our interests — and Iraq and Afghanistan are merely the latest episodes in a long history. What’s more, in most cases we’ve even been more brutal than our Muslim opponents. Granted, over the past 19 years, al-Qaida has brutally murdered some 3,500 Western civilians in the United States and Western Europe. But former US President George W. Bush has hundreds of thousands of civilian lives on his conscience in Iraq alone — and all of this is in the name of our civilization.

The third lie is that we prioritize civilian reconstruction over military activities. Although the US spent $100 billion (€74 billion) on the war in 2010, only $5 billion of that was for development aid — and 40 percent of this «aid» happened to flow back to the US as profit and fees. The rest of the money had to wind its way through the dark channels of international subcontractors before a trickle of 20-30 percent finally reached development projects.

Germany likewise puts into reconstruction only a fraction of what it spends on its military. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Afghanistan is currently the poorest country in Asia, and UNICEF estimates that 20 percent of all children there die before reaching the age of five. Even US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry admits that 77 percent of Afghans don’t have access to clean drinking water and 45 percent go hungry. Under these circumstances, can we really call this «prioritizing civilian reconstruction»?

The fourth lie is that we’re in the Hindu Kush to prevent the return of the Taliban for good. That almost sounds like a goal we can rally behind. After all, who really wants to see a return of those Stone Age warriors who trample women’s rights under their feet? Nevertheless, the truth is actually much more complex. The Taliban already controls half of Afghanistan, and the danger that it will capture the rest won’t be any smaller four years from now. Indeed, the Afghan Taliban grows stronger every day and — unlike its imitators in Pakistan — it seems to have learned from past mistakes. The New York Times has reported that, in some regions controlled by the resistance, girls are once again being barred from attending school — with the Taliban’s approval. The «Layeha,» or «book of rules,» laid down by Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar suggests that things will soon change in many respects.

Even if things were different, the Taliban’s unacceptable worldview is still not a good enough reason to wage war. If that were the case we would also have to invade Somalia, Yemen and North Korea and a number of other authoritarian states, some of which we even count among our allies. The world would become one massive, bloody battlefield.

Part 2: One Final, Bloody Round

NATO’s withdrawal doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be an outbreak of chaos. For example, in Iraq the chaos didn’t increase when American troops left. Instead, it was the American invasion — and not the withdrawal — that triggered the gruesome chaos there.

At this point NATO is only concerned with getting out of the Afghanistan mess with as little loss of face as possible. By sending in the reinforcements, Barack Obama has merely rung the bell announcing one final, bloody round of fighting. This war will end the same way that the Algerian War, the Vietnam War and the Soviet war in Afghanistan did.

If no one steps in to seize the helm and change the course of affairs, this final, bloody round will once again mean a senseless death for countless people. Our politicians, of course, will continue to tell solemn tales of bravery and patriotism. And all of this will have happened just so they wouldn’t have to admit to misleading the public and our soldiers for nine years — and that they never had a real reason for getting us into this war in the first place.

Still, there is another option: negotiations at both the national and international levels. Why is it that not a single German politician will venture to position our country once again as a force for peace? Does this government not have a politician with the gravitas of a Willy Brandt, a Hans-Dietrich Genscher or an Egon Bahr? Isn’t there someone who could make clear to Barack Obama — in a friendly way and behind closed doors, if necessary — that there’s a smarter course of action than this war without a cause or a goal? And that we won’t participate in this final, bloody round?

Where is the German politician who could initiate the establishment of a security conference on the Middle East like the Cold War’s Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)? Isn’t there someone willing to push for direct talks between American leaders and Mullah Omar? Could it be that someone willing to do these things is exactly the kind of alliance partner Obama really needs, an honest and true friend?

The Only Way Out Is Negotiation

Anyone who finds the idea of such talks unrealistic should just ask Henry Kissinger about the criticisms hurled at him when he negotiated with the Viet Cong. Western politicians’ insistence on negotiating only with moderate members of the Taliban is simply out of touch with reality. What would the Vietnamese have said if Kissinger had insisted on negotiating only with moderate Viet Cong members? What would the general secretary of the Soviet Union have thought if the West had explained it was only willing to talk with moderate Soviets?

Though negotiations wouldn’t be easy, at least the US does have something to offer: a ceasefire for a country exhausted by 30 years of war, the withdrawal of its occupying forces and international acceptance that their former opponents will play a role in the country’s government. Anyone whose hair stands on end at the thought of Mullah Omar sharing power in Afghanistan should be reminded that — even if they deny it now — Afghan leaders did offer him the position of vice president long ago.

What the Taliban could bring to this kind of deal would be a guarantee that they would not allow any kind of activity by foreign terrorists in the country, and that they would clamp down on opium farmers. All of these things will happen as a matter of course, as will either the Taliban’s participation in the country’s government or its complete seizure of power. It’s not all that different from how things went in Vietnam — and our political leaders know it. So is it really necessary to keep destroying Afghanistan for another four years?

Tears for Afghanistan

Just once, I would like to take a German politician to visit an Afghan family. He could leave his combat helmet and flak jacket at home since hospitality is a tradition sacred to Afghans. We could go to the village of Aliabad, near Kunduz, and visit children whose fathers and siblings were incinerated when a German officer ordered the bombing of two tanker trucks there in September 2009. Those children would probably like to ask their German guests what their family members had ever done to them.

As I’m writing this the weather outside is somewhere between snow and rain, just as it was during that December demonstration 26 years ago in Tübingen. A defense minister is once again awarding medals of honor, without daring to admit that the war has already been lost. We have so many brave soldiers, but so few brave politicians. These days, I’m busy building a home for the orphans of Aliabad, the victims of Germany’s lack of bravery. It’s enough to make me cry. But no one cries for Afghanistan.

Link: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,744866,00.html

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