European interest in supporting NATO’s Afghanistan mission is low and getting lower. Recent events in Germany are a case in point.
After Taliban insurgents killed three German soldiers in late June near the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, the debate in Germany over the war in Afghanistan intensified significantly. According to the BBC, 35 German soldiers have died fighting for ISAF since 2002. Currently, there are 3700 German troops in Afghanistan, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to increase that number to 4400 by the end of 2009.
In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, former Defense Minister Peter Stuck and past Bundestag member and war critic Jürgen Todenhöfer debated the rationale for invading Afghanistan, the troops’ mission and the proper timeline for their eventual withdrawal:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Struck, is Germany safer today, after seven years of having the German army, the Bundeswehr, in Afghanistan?
Struck: Of course. Under the Taliban regime, the threat of terrorism coming from Afghanistan was much greater for us in Europe and in Germany. We will still have to defend our security in the Hindu Kush region. This statement will continue to be true until Afghanistan no longer poses a threat in terms of terrorism.
SPIEGEL: Do you also feel safer, Mr. Todenhöfer?
Todenhöfer: On the contrary. This NATO mission puts Germany in danger. The images of American bombing attacks, civilian casualties and destroyed villages flicker across the television screens of millions of Muslim households around the world. Obviously, there are young people — even in our country — who will not put up with this and will want to defend themselves. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is chasing terrorists in Germany that his fellow cabinet minister, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung is creating in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is a breeding program for terrorists.
Todenhöfer is right to note the anger elicited by Western incursions into Islamic countries, particularly given the history of colonialism in the Middle East, but he fundamentally underestimates the threat emanating from the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The legacy of militancy and radical Islam, combined with the near total absence of government control, provides terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda with a training ground and potential launching site for attacks against European and American targets, particularly U.S.-allied Middle Eastern regimes. Afghanistan was a breeding ground for terrorists before 9/11 and could be in the future if NATO and U.S. forces are unable to provide the security necessary for governance and development to penetrate the tribal regions.
Having debated the reasons for invading, Stuck and Todenhöfer then addressed the future of Germany’s presence in Afghanistan and the best strategy to bring peace and prosperity to the war-torn country.
SPIEGEL: What has to happen in Afghanistan so that NATO can withdraw?
Struck: Everyone involved agrees that we have to devote more of our attention to training the Afghan army and the Afghan police force. Unfortunately, this proceeded at a very slow pace in the past. The Bundeswehr is doing a lot more in this respect today.
Todenhöfer: The Afghans are born fighters. They have been the target of attacks for thousands of years. Every 14-year-old boy in Afghanistan can handle a weapon. They don’t need a lot of training. They need money. Why should a young, unemployed Afghan join the national army, where he makes less than $100 (€71) a month, if he can earn $400-600 (€285-430) with the Taliban? We have to pay the Afghan national army better. Only Afghans can defeat Afghans.
SPIEGEL: You want to talk to the Taliban, Mr. Struck?
Struck: Yes, that’s the right approach. I have already spoken with Taliban officials in Kunduz. We have to include everyone, or at least the moderate Taliban. I would exclude someone like Mullah Omar. I’ve examined his record. He’s a mass murderer.
Todenhöfer: By the same logic, the Afghans whose family members died in a hail of American bombs would also have to reject talks with the Americans. If you want to exclude radical members of the Taliban from negotiations, it’s as if the Americans had said during the peace negotiations with Vietnam: We will only talk to the moderate Viet Cong. That’s ridiculous. We need a reconciliation “loya jirga,” a tribal council in which all insurgents participate.
Stuck and Todenhöfer offer surprisingly unsophisticated responses to these questions. While Stuck correctly points out that strengthening Afghan law enforcement capacity and training the armed forces will be necessary to achieve NATO’s goals in Afghanistan, simply training forces is not enough – there must be a broader counterinsurgency effort that protects the population while providing an opportunity to build up government structures and implement development programs. Similarly, Todenhöfer, by suggesting that the Afghans need money not training, seems to have forgotten that – while higher pay for the Afghan army would certainly be welcome – the strategy of handing out cash to soldiers and militiamen contributed to the anarchy that followed the Soviet withdrawal.
Regarding negotiations with the Taliban, Stuck smartly recommends dealing with Taliban commanders who are not allied with Al Qaeda and who have perhaps a more practical relationship with Islam. Todenhöfer, conversely, advocates negotiation with all Taliban leaders and obtusely compares U.S. bombings – and the civilians that such actions inevitably, tragically kill – to the efforts of Al Qaeda terrorists who would stop at nothing, even the murder of innocent Muslims, to strike at the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Middle East.
There are no easy policy prescriptions for the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it is disheartening to witness a debate that, like so many in the U.S., substitutes forthright analysis and genuine inquiry with partisan recriminations and rhetorical tropes. As a majority of Germans now favor removing their troops from Afghanistan, it is essential that statesmen like Stuck and Todenhöfer provide fair-minded, candid analysis throughout Europe if we are ever to achieve what U.S. President Barack Obama termed a “hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”
Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist. He is pursuing a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.