The German Mission in Afghanistan – Impact, Results and Consequences

German involvement in Afghanistan did not begin with the attacks of September 11. In the 60s and 70s, Afghanistan was a key aspect of West German development aid. Aid efforts are still fondly remembered today, as is evident from the technical centres (Technikum) in Paktia and Kandahar. Afghan police officers graduated from the Policy Academy in Münster-Hiltrup as well as in the GDR (German Democratic Republic/East Germany). In 1980, German World Hunger Aid (Welthungerhilfe) began working in Afghanistan; in 1989, Karla Schefter, a surgical nurse from Dortmund, arrived and built a hospital complex in Wardak province near Kabul. In other words, German humanitarian and development aid existed before the German military intervention – and it will (and must) still be there after the military mission is over.

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, led to a broader public awareness of Afghanistan. The initial reaction was broad and sincere solidarity with the U.S., but the political decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan was highly controversial, especially among the red-green coalition. On November 16, 2001, the Bundestag decided to join the US-led anti-terror Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and authorised the use of up to 100 Special Forces in Afghanistan. The deciding factor was allied solidarity (NATO) with the United States. Without pressure from the vote of confidence called on by Chancellor Schroeder, the red-green coalition would not have had a majority within their own ranks for military intervention.

Much less controversial in Parliament and in public was the decision made a month later, after the Afghanistan conference in Petersberg, for German armed forces to participate in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Based on the UN Security Council’s mandate, the initial assignment was to “assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment.”(Deutscher Bundestag 21.12.2001)

When widespread fears were not confirmed in the first few months of the military intervention, mixed feelings of relief and hopeful expectations emerged in Berlin. Visitors witnessed the enormous devastation of the civil war in Kabul, learned vivid details of the Taliban’s terror regime, and experienced the friendliness of the Kabul people towards the international troops. An enormous need for reconstruction was at hand. The response to the first measures, such as the winter school programme organised by, among others, the German Embassy, was full of hope. Since the secret use of Special Forces and OEF took place outside of the public eye, the Afghanistan mission appeared to comply with its mandate of stabilisation and reconstruction assistance. Despite strong mandates, the ISAF military operation began as a cautious peacekeeping mission in a complex and risky environment, worlds away from a war operation and today’s counter-insurgency fight.

Nine years later, memories of the first few months and years are like a big dream, from which we awoke with highly differing realities: While part of the dream came true, there was overall a rude awakening. A relapse into the 90s, when the Taliban and civil war ruled, is a possibility.

What it is about

The phrase “defence of Germany in Hindu Kush” (“Verteidigung Deutschlands am Hindukusch”) is catchy, but misleading. It reeks of a borderless understanding of defence: Away from one’s own territory to the military defence of national interests (abroad), and thus away from international law. In Afghanistan, it is not at all about securing Germany’s existence, but about central international collective security interests, i.e., the sustainable elimination of the local terrorist infrastructure and the reconstruction of a deeply war-torn country. It is little known that the U.N. Security Council already evaluated the situation in Afghanistan as a threat to international peace and security in 1999. Only a superficial threat analysis can claim that today’s Taliban are a direct threat to German national security. Apart from the euro crisis, Afghanistan is the biggest challenge for German foreign and security policy, especially in their understanding of peace politics: With regard to the complexity, material costs, political risks – and – for the first time – the human sacrifice. A gap such as the one between the large majority in Parliament for the Afghanistan mission and the majority of the population that is against the mission is unprecedented in a foreign operation.

For the first time since the founding of the German Armed Forces, German soldiers find themselves in combat operations against insurgents. For the first time, German soldiers are being killed or physically and mentally wounded in combat, and for the first time they are killing and wounding others. An end is not in sight. A failure of the whole international operation is possible and according to some experts on the country, even probable. A failure would be expected to have disastrous consequences:

  • for people in Afghanistan, especially for those who are working towards more human security and human rights,
  • for regional security, especially in regard to Pakistan and Central Asia,
  • for international security, for a collective peace-keeping policy and accountability framed within the United Nations and NATO.

The Afghanistan mission is already an enormous burden – and test - for the internal leadership and the concept of the citizens in uniform. Many soldiers doubt that success under the given circumstances is even possible. Many who are unable to take orders out of conviction anymore, are thrown back on their professional work settings, on camaraderie as the last motivation and the very last psychological support.

Outcome aspects

The methodical handicap is notorious and self-inflicted: The federal government has not conducted a systematic evaluation of Germany’s engagement in Afghanistan in years. The federal government delivers mainly input reports, partial evaluations at best, but no integrated outcome report whatsoever. How many of the trained police officers remain? What did the anti-terror Operation Enduring Freedom contribute to terror reduction? How sustainable are the various development projects? These are simple, elementary questions without answers. The political reports from the government remain general, euphemistic, and shaped by an interest in self-justification. The “Afghanistan Progress Report,” first published in December 2010, was probably the federal government’s most detailed and informative survey of the international and German operation in Afghanistan. However, this report did not provide the long-overdue, unembellished and self-critical evaluation of Germany’s engagement.

Despite these fundamental failings, individual results are apparent:

The core military mission, to contribute to a safe environment, achieved quite varying results across the country. Since 2006, vast areas in the South and the East are clearly (guerrilla) war zones. The districts of Sangin or Nad Ali in Helmand in the South are worlds away from the Balkh province in the North.

In the North, efforts to contain violence succeeded at least until 2007. The reputable methodological study conducted in Takhar and Kunduz by researchers at the Free University of Berlin in early 2007 identified the highest approval ratings in the population for international development and military commitment. (Böhnke / Koehler / Zürcher 2010). Effective violence containment meant that many people were protected from death, injury, loss of possessions, and from flight. Of course these impacts are neither quantifiable nor visible. Since 2007, development is divided: in the majority of the nine northern provinces, the situation is relatively quiet and development is possible. In contrast, the early hopes of Kunduz province, along with the adjoining southern province of Baghlan, have experienced a real decline.

Of the 123 northern districts, about eight were classified as guerilla war zones in 2010. However, for the first time in years, the number of security incidents in the first quarter of 2011 in the Kunduz-Baghlan corridor declined in comparison to the first quarter of the preceding year. This was achieved with a change in leadership and a surge in ISAF and Afghan security forces.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 20,000-30,000 core armed fighters, in addition to the militant resistance groups numbering several 100,000, of which a significant proportion comes from the Pashtun community. With the number of security incidents continuing to rapidly increase and the zones of relative security and accessibility shrinking, the general fulfillment of the military mission through the ISAF becomes less likely. In the 3rd quarter of 2010 there was an increase of security incidents of 65% (Kinetic Events in ISAF’s terminology) compared to the corresponding quarter of the previous year – i.e. 4.723 cases. Over 90% of the incidents occurred in the ISAF regions in the Southwest, South and East (The Department of Defense, 2010).

Child mortality is a central reconstruction and development indicator. In 2003, the rate was 257 per 1000 children under 5, in 2006 it was 191, and in 2009 it was 156. This clearly means that tens of thousands of children’s lives were saved each year! That is a huge achievement! The comparison with child mortality worldwide (about 60), even Germany (about 4), shows how far behind Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, still lies.

It is known that about eight million children now attend school, about a third of which are girls. In 2001, it was one million and only boys. An important indicator is the Teacher Training Centres, five of which were established in the north by the German government. Each centre provides basic and advanced training to between 1,000 to 3,000 students and teachers. On several visits, I witnessed admirable motivation and engagement for the younger generation and for one’s own country.

Reliable survey results in a fragmented country such as Afghanistan are particularly hard to obtain. One striking result of the surveys, however, is that the Afghan’s view of their security, future and politics is notably more positive than the deeply pessimistic perceptions held in far away countries, such as Germany. This also applies to the most recent surveys conducted in December 2010 by ARD, ABC, BBC and the Washington Post. Western intervention, however, was rated more critically than ever.

To name a few exemplary costs and consequences of the operation: According to UNAMA, 2,777 civilians alone lost their lives in 2010 in connection with the “internal armed conflict.” In the same year, 1,292 police officers were killed. The German military also experienced its greatest losses so far in 2010, with nine soldiers killed and an additional 60 physically wounded. A significantly higher number of soldiers were emotionally wounded.

After having been supported by a majority of the German population in the early years, the Afghanistan mission has been losing more and more acceptance in recent years. Coinciding with a heightening of the security situation since 2007/2008, the political leadership also saw an unparalleled breakdown in confidence from members of the German military. The former Defence Minister zu Guttenberg succeeded in his time to regain trust from the soldiers. According to accounts from German officers within the NATO context, the Federal Republic has lost immense prestige and weight among its allies. However, Germany is still viewed in a relatively positive light by the Afghan population.

To date, there are – at times remarkable – partial successes: The Dutch were relatively successful in parts of the North, the West, in Kabul, and even in the turbulent southern province of Uruzgan. The partial successes are in recent years increasingly overshadowed, limited, and challenged by an expanding insurgency, an unchecked escalation of political violence, and perpetual poor and corrupt governance.

Missed chances

How could the Afghan mission come to this slip? Over fifteen visits, I witnessed hundreds of soldiers, development experts, diplomats, and police officers who, during their deployment, took on enormous burdens and risks. Their efforts deserve great recognition. They are the least to blame for this slip up.

The major crisis of the Afghan mission is due primarily to political miscalculations and strategic errors:

  • First, there is the naive underestimation of the huge and complex challenge of stabilisation and nation-building in Afghanistan after 23 years of war. This was demonstrated by the Bush administration’s outright contempt for nation-building and the shift to the Iraq war in the early years. This was evident in Germany’s underequipped police mission that was expected to no less than lead the rebuilding of the police force.
  • The long lasting strategic disagreements among the allies: Priority to fight the opponents vs. priority to address the needs of population. This disagreement was never addressed at the political alliance level in Brussels. The diplomats, soldiers and development workers paid for this on site, where disrespectful and inconsiderate appearances of some damaged the credibility and legitimacy of the entire international engagement.
  • The years-long fixation on Kabul and on promoting central rule in a country that had never known a strong central government and where locality is of high-ranking import.
  • The early cronyism with allies of former warlords opened the doors to influence, power and sinecure – at the cost of internal Afghan reform capabilities and the legitimacy of the new Afghan “democracy” as a whole.
  • The fragmentation and discontinuity of an international stabilisation and reconstruction operation with this unprecedented dimension and complexity: An incoherent multilateralism of nations and their departments, from NATO, UNAMA and hard to coordinate special UN agencies to international organisations and NGOs with their respective interests, reservations, policies, and differing PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) approaches, etc.
  • The imbalance between military efforts and their much larger resources on the one hand and the weaker diplomatic and civilian efforts and capacity on the other hand.
  • The much too long disregarded regional dimension, especially that of Pakistan and Iran.

Germany’s Afghanistan policy arguably avoided the big failure committed by the U.S. and placed more attention on the population’s needs from the onset. At the same time, this effort was long characterised as dishonest, half-hearted, and lacking strategy. Indicative of this was that the Chancellor did not hold her first policy statement on Afghanistan until September 2009, after the air attack in Kunduz and shortly before the Bundestag elections. In the preceding years, the emerging critical realities of the Afghanistan mission had fallen increasingly out of sight.

This was promoted by the military hierarchy’s tendency to talk up the actual situation, the political leaders’ priority for domestic interests, and the notorious refusal to undertake an honest and independent efficacy assessment. This resulted in a structure of self-deception, loss of reality and illusion. The commanders of the ISAF reported by 2008 that they could no longer fulfil the mission with existing army forces in Kunduz, but this was not accepted in Berlin.

Under the conditions of a parliamentary army, the federal government bears the responsibility, but it does not do so alone. The Bundestag shares responsibility in the form of its special committees (Fachausschuesse). Coalition majorities neglected their supervisory duties due to the concept of coalition discipline. Two investigation committees from the Defence Committee (2007/2008 for Murnat Kurnaz and 2010 for the air attack in Kunduz on September 4) tied up so much capacity that the operation fell short of careful supervision.

A new beginning – too late?

Thus, the better chances of the early years were wasted. Under President Obama, the U.S. initiated a strategy change with the ISAF and took a new approach: A reorientation towards a military-political counterinsurgency, in which the protection and consent of the Afghan population should be the key element, a surge in military and civilian forces, and the mobilisation of enormous financial resources. Never were the goals and visions of the "international community" in such accordance as they are today. The federal government doubled the resources for civilian reconstruction in 2009. The nations contributing troops to the ISAF, the Afghan government and the UN departed from the previous attitude of a never-ending international operation and agreed on a military withdrawal.   

Nevertheless, it is uncertain whether the strategy change and the surge are too late. After years of dashed hopes and loss of confidence, how can hearts and minds be won back,

  • when the Afghan government continues to repel hearts and minds through predominantly poor governance and excessive corruption, and when the spread of the insurgency is so advanced and in some areas so deeply rooted;
  • when the fulfilment of the ISAF’s promise to protect the population is becoming less and less likely, when the active fight against opponents, such as the “kill and capture” of the average insurgency leader, results in younger, more radical and more brutal replacements from Pakistan;
  • when the ISAF withdrawal nears and the Afghans must increasingly focus on the “aftermath”?

Using the last chances

The alternative of an immediate military withdrawal, i.e., during 2011, would surely have disastrous consequences. The war would only end for the international troops withdrawing. For the Afghans, it would likely lead to an unchecked escalation. In addition to a quick power grab by the Taliban in the East and South, other parts of the country, that until now have been relatively quiet, would likely face a civil war. In contrast to Afghanistan’s civil war horrors of the early 90s, today, the surrounding countries fear the regional consequences of an Afghan breakdown.    

In view of such “alternatives,” it is essential to use potential opportunities to their best extent and to pursue a military exit strategy that has a responsible peace- and security-promoting political focus and that is not reduced to cynically and short-sightedly saving NATO’s face.

In regard to its Afghanistan policy, Germany has to first and foremost instil honesty. Even the most realistic talk from the current government is far from achieving this.

Those who are still earnestly interested in a mild and responsible outcome of the Afghanistan operation and a peaceful development need to take a closer look, instead of a superficial glimpse, at an unvarnished assessment of the security situation – just as the reconstruction situation needs verifiable milestones and ongoing, independent reviews of its efficacy. Models for this are the Canadian quarterly report and the four year report of Dutch involvement in Uruzgan.

Without an evaluation, there is no realistic and promising German policy for Afghanistan. Without a candid review, there is absolutely no chance to stop the loss of acceptance and trust. This must be accompanied and driven by a public debate that seeks to establish common goals, solutions and necessary efforts, and does not remain stuck on the usual questions of military equipment and rules of engagement.

Without falling into feasibility illusions, or to hide behind multilateralism: What does the Federal Republic –in coordination with Afghanistan and the allies – want to achieve and when do they want to achieve it by? What is the road map?

A clear, honest and achievable mandate from the Bundestag that identifies realistic main tasks is overdue.

The primacy of politics and the key task of promoting governance need adequate manpower and muscle. This is especially true for diplomacy, which so far, due to a lack of personel resources in the country, has not been able to fulfill the primacy of politics. Until early summer 2010, only one (!) diplomat of higher services was assigned to the German commander of ISAF Regional Command North. This diplomat was responsible for nine provinces and had no stand-in during home leave. On the other hand, the United States assign their ISAF Regional Commands with Senior Civilian Representatives equipped with teams of ten to thirty people, and this structure is replicated at the provincial and district levels (District Support Team). Those who want to halt the advance of rebel districts and really stabilise the areas, need civilian capacity at the tactical level.

The number of German police advisors and trainers was increased slightly, but still falls far short of the necessary numbers. The German police force ultimately needs a reliable recruiting structure and a pool of new positions in Germany. In order to make up for the shortfall of civilian capabilities and to finally place the political-civilian side of the Afghanistan operation more in view, the Federal Government should submit a “comprehensive mandate” to the Bundestag. Beyond the targets set out in the Parliamentary Participation Act, a comprehensive mandate would also lay out the fundamental civilian and police duties and provide the necessary forces and resources.

Provided they have common goals, coherence and cooperation among state actors should be a given. Therefore, in a task with dimensions such as that of Afghanistan, departmental principle must not be the final word. Consensus among insiders is that the much talked about networked security approach is first and foremost lip service and hardly a reality. Positions surveying, planning and evaluation need a common departmental structure – as is done in Canada. The need to catch up on inter-departmental cooperation is not only present in the executive branch, but also within the parliamentary branch. In this context, civil-military relations, which have been discussed back and forth for many years, needs to be quickly resolved.

Focal points of Germany’s engagement in Afghanistan must include the following:

  • An accelerated, demand-orientated reconstruction support for the Afghan security forces, police, army, and justice.
  • Together with Afghan security forces, the (re-)establishment of minimal physical security and freedom of movement in districts that have until now been dominated by insurgents and armed groups.
  • The promotion of governance, especially at the sub-national level, and the training of management staff in administrative skills at the provincial level.
  • The broad support of education, especially that of teachers, and strengthened vocational and university training. It is precisely in this area that there are still significant but underutilised chances!
  • Wide employment initiatives for young people. 49 percent of the population is under 15 years old and the number of 15-19 year old males will increase by one million to almost four million over the next five years.
  • Reliable support for inner-Afghan reform forces in a broad sense – in other words, this should include support for reform-orientated traditional authorities and clergy.
  • The promotion of regional conflict mitigation and resolution in a multilateral context.


The stabilisation and reconstruction of Afghanistan requires patience and a deep breath, but also rapid action and constructive impatience. After years of lost opportunities, time is now pressing. The summer of 2011 is the hour of truth. It will reveal if the enormous surge in 2010 was fruitful and if the number of security incidences stagnated and declined – or if on the contrary continued to increase as before.


Since the beginning of the operation, Germany alone has deployed thousands upon thousands of men and women, military and civilian, to Afghanistan. They are returning with diverse experiences, fascinating or disturbing memories, and physical and/or psychological injuries. Most cannot let go of the country and its people, both in a positive and in a negative sense. Also massively affected are the relatives, for whom waiting from a distance can also be very trying. Back in the peaceful home country, many are confronted with mostly disinterest.

Even the deploying institutions often ignore the returnees’ experiences. The number of people, especially young men, who have experienced extreme violence, both actively and passively, is growing in the thousands. They are usually left to deal with these experiences alone. This is intolerable, unacceptable and dangerous.

Independent of the political evaluation of the Afghanistan operations: attention and reliable care for these men and women and their relatives is a joint responsibility of politicians and society. This is now on the rise, but it is still much too little recognised. It must not be reduced to symbolic actions.

The crucial factor remains how the government and parliament will fulfil their basic obligation for a clear, achievable mission and honesty. Those who are put under the highest burdens and sent on life-risking operations must be able to rely on those assigning the duties to fulfil their basic responsibilities. Anything else would be abuse of soldiers, police officers and civilian delegates by neglect.


  • Böhnke, Jan / Koehler, Jan / Zürcher, Christoph (2010), Evaluation Reports 049. Assessing the Impact of Development Cooperation in North East Afghanistan 2005 – 2009. Final Report. Hg. v. Bundesmi-nisterium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung, Bonn.
  • Deutscher Bundestag (21.12.2001): Antrag der Bundesregierung, Beteiligung bewaffneter deutscher Streitkräfte an dem Einsatz einer internationalen Sicherheitsunterstützungstruppe in Afghanistan. Drucksache 14/7930.
  • Government of Canada (2010), Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan - quarterly report to Parliament for the period of January 1 to March 31, 2010.
  • The Department of Defense (Hg.) (2010): Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan. Report to Congress in Accordance with Section 1231 of the National Defence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008. Public Law 110-181, 28.04.2010 [07.02.2011].
  • The Liaison Office (2010), The Dutch Engagement in Uruzgan 2006 – 2010, A socio-political assessment, Kabul.

This article was published by Nomos in the book Das internationale Engagement in Afghanistan in der Sackgasse? Eine politisch-ethische Auseinandersetzung, edited by Prof. Dr. Heinz-Gerhard Justenhoven and Dr. Ebrahim Afsah, Hamburg Institute for Theology and Peace, 2011. The article was provided courtesy of the author.