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We Must Become Softer: A Plea to Strengthen Afghan Civil Society

Military withdrawal is certain. Details of how troops will gradually be reduced until full withdrawal is achieved in 2014 will be negotiated with Afghan government partners and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the second part of the year. NATO troops are not fleeing, according to the official line, but are gradually handing over security responsibility to Afghan institutions.

This is, so they say, to ensure that the security gains achieved since 2001 are not lost under sole sovereignty of the Afghan government. The Afghan civil society will not play any role in this transfer process. Nor will they have a voice in negotiations with the rebels. To the degree that the international community is concerned with the intra-Afghan agreement and security handover, so should it also be concerned that the process does not harm Afghan civil society, but rather ensure that it has an active voice in the process. Just as security gains and management capacity should remain in Afghanistan after 2014, so should political and social, i.e., civil societal, expertise also be retained in the country. Therefore, on the one hand, there is a need for an intensive dialogue with Afghan NGOs and binding commitments, or in other words, a kind of civilian disengagement plan. For this purpose, the second Bonn Conference and especially the preliminary proceedings in Afghanistan are no doubt the last opportunities. On the other hand, the federal government must finally leverage its resources to strengthen Afghan civil society. Power lines, roads and dams are certainly important – but democratic and human rights awareness, political organisation capacity and education are more important.

Many political development projects are still dependent on military protection today. There is hardly an infrastructure project that does not require constant security. Alone in the Paktia province, Kabul’s eastern neighbour, 59 workers and security guards died between March and May 2011 from Taliban attacks. Even the German development worker that was shot in December 2010 was engaged in road construction. Civil aid workers are targets because the rebels view nearly each successful development project as a strengthening of the government, which is their enemy, even when the individual projects are aimed only at civilian needs. If the federal government coupled civilian aid and military action, as envisioned by the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Dirk Niebel, this dilemma would be compounded.

Instead of a so-called networked security, we need, through 2025, a civilian development strategy that does not require the presence of foreign troops. Even now, each project that we begin must be able to function without international assistance. This means that the projects must be smaller, be less “hard” (e.g., infrastructure, economic development), and be “softer” (e.g., education, supporting civil society). The projects must be requested and accepted, in the best sense of the word, by the Afghans. Our civil contribution in Afghanistan should above all benefit civil society, and not necessarily the central government, military, nor the local “strongmen.” Our commitment is only sustainable if it directly helps the people to improve their everyday lives.

Unfortunately, we did not know in 2001, nor do we know in 2011, how the German contribution to such sustainable projects in Afghanistan could be transferred to civil societal and local capabilities. At the beginning, we did not know how long the road to peace and a well-functioning society would be; today, the federal government still does not exactly know how to best approach this path.

The Afghanistan mission began in 2001/2002 as a limited military operation. It was, according to Ahmed Rashid, the “cheapest war that America ever led.”[1] The target was al-Qaeda, whose home base was to be eliminated. That it would be much easier to drive out the Taliban and al-Qaeda than to find a new government was only clear to a few at the beginning. The ISAF’s military strategy was determined by the action in the field. The civilian part of the plan, however, was not automatically a part of the strategy. 

The magnitude of the task on the civilian side of the operation was unknown, at least to German politicians. Consequently, German involvement was poorly planned. The then Defence Minister Peter Struck said in the plenary of the Bundestag on 16 November 2001, “It is now about focussing international efforts on securing order in the troubled land.” His cabinet colleague, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, demanded from the Northern Alliance that they reinstate women’s rights. At this point however, the strongmen of the Northern Alliance argued more about how they would split the newly won territory among themselves, rather than with the Taliban. In Mazar-i-Sharif, the forces of General Dostum and from Mohammed Atta were pitted against each other, while 150 km further east, in Kunduz, the Taliban still held their ground. There was no sign of order to be secured, nor of a government that could be supported.

Throughout the debate that decided if and how Germany would participate in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the speakers all had a militarily supported relief operation in mind. Nobody thought that the international community would stay ten years in order to build a political community from the ground up.

As a consequence, ten years of improvisation ensued. Thanks to the efforts of individuals, many good things have been achieved in select areas. The goals of German involvement – democracy, security, human rights – were and still are not associated with individual instruments and specific support measures. An example: German aid to Afghanistan will be dispersed in two instalments in 2011. According to Minister Niebel in May, hinging aid disbursement to certain conditions will “strengthen Afghan democratic and reform efforts.” The federal government revealed in June that the second instalment is indeed tied “to a general acceleration of the customs clearance and registration process of vehicles and equipment to three months”[2]. Whereupon the rapid import of vehicle fleets will certainly have no influence on democratic forces in Afghanistan.

Obama’s announcement to withdraw one-third of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by mid-2012 follows the famous advice of U.S. Senator George Aiken on the Vietnam War: “Declare victory and get out.” We cannot proceed as such on the civilian side. The Afghan people must stay in the country and we must help them cope with the consequences of more than three decades of war. We decide now and over the next few months what will remain of the international and German commitment for the Afghans, when NATO forces withdraw in 2014. If we continue as before, hardly anything that we started in Afghanistan will be sustainable. Military withdrawal will then coincide with a civilian collapse.


  1. Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos, London: Allen Lane 2008, 63.
  2. Bundestag printed paper, 17/5984




Afghanistan 2011 - 10 Years of International Engagement

After ten years of international involvement in Afghanistan, a second conference will take plan in Bonn this December 2011 to discuss the country’s future. Since 2002, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has actively supported the development of civil society in Afghanistan and has promoted exchanges between the German and Afghan public. The following dossier provides a venue for comments, analysis and debate ahead of the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan.

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