Germany’s Role in Nation Building in Afghanistan: A critical Transatlantic Debate

The fall of Kabul shortly before the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, marked the end of NATO’s military deployment in Afghanistan. But why did this end in defeat?

The US generally sees the main cause not in the fight against international terrorism but rather in the attempt to build a stable, perhaps even democratic state in Afghanistan i.e. “nation building”. As US President Joe Biden recently stated in a TV interview: “Nation building never made sense to me

Likewise, in his speech following the withdrawal of the last US soldiers, Biden noted: “We have seen a mission against terrorism (…) transformed into a counterinsurgency mission in an attempt to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan to create.” It will make America stronger when the country “leaves that way of thinking behind”.

The Europeans on the other hand – especially the Germans – see the decisive reason for failure in the gap between unrealistic goals and a lack of resources for the UN mandated international military mission International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

But how did it come about that the anti-terror mission “turned“ into a “nation-building” mission? Who redefined the goals, who initiated the change?

The US administration of President George W. Bush initially had little interest in nation building. The reconceptualization of Afghanistan had a European and decidedly German origin. Germany’s main interest was not necessarily democratic change in Afghanistan nor the “unlimited solidarity” for the US, as promised by SPD Chancellor at the time, Gerhard Schröder. Much more decisive was Germany’s political leadership’s desire to reconcile these other goals with avoiding the “war” term.

Post-war German foreign policy is characterized by a continuous conflict between the contradicting motifs of “Never again war”, “Never again alone” and “Never again Auschwitz”, that is, between anti-militarism, multilateralism and historical responsibility. In this discourse, there is no room for “war” as political practice, only something to be avoided. This presented Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer with the challenge of participating in a war without violating the tabus of German security policy.

That was all the more difficult because the American term “war on terror” was deliberately designed to be expansive and inclusive – not only Al Qaeda or the Taliban were meant, but also global terror as a whole. The term enabled the US to also take action against the so-called “axis of evil”, i.e. Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

The red-green governing coalition in Germany therefore developed its own interpretation of the global anti-terrorist mission. It interpreted the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, as a “police operation” , in order to justify its participation. More importantly, it argued to take on greater responsibility in rebuilding Afghanistan than in the military operations to liberate it.

As Ulf von Krause shows in “Die Afghanistaneinsätze der Bundeswehr”, several political decisions in the early phase of the Afghanistan war between 2001 and 2006 created a feedback loop which determined the later course of the war. In retrospect, several tipping points can be identified, which caused the operation to focus more and more on “nation building”. Here German influence was decisive.

The first central event is the Afghanistan conference on the Petersberg near Bonn in 2001. This is where the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was launched. The Petersberg Conference from November 27 to December 5, 2001 was a great success for German foreign policy and especially for Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Fischer, who was host of the conference, wanted to demonstrate Germany’s increased responsibility “for the fortunes of the world” as then Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder formulated it.

Joschka Fischer wanted to show that Germany takes responsibility

An important part of the “Bonn Process” that began with the conference was the safeguarding of reconstruction through the UN mandated ISAF in Kabul. The Bundeswehr leadership was skeptical, as there was a lack of skills and resources for additional foreign deployments (Bundeswehr had been in Kosovo since 1999). But Fischer wanted to show that Germany was taking on international responsibility. He also hoped that this would increase Germany’s chances of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council – a major goal of German foreign and security policy since at least 1990.

A second tipping point was the famous German “No” to participation in the US war in Iraq. In order to “make amends” for both saying no and for instrumentalizing it in the 2002 election campaign, Schröder offered the US to take over the leadership of a “Provincial Reconstruction Team” in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. These “Provincial reconstruction teams” consisted of military personnel, diplomats and experts and were meant to improve the infrastructure in the region and to support local governments. A few years later Schröder wrote in his memoir:” The approval of Afghanistan made us free to say no to the Iraq war. ”

For the Germans, taking on a leadership role in Kunduz was primarily a symbolic act. The north was considered relatively peaceful, and the assumption of the “reconstruction team” could be conveyed as a sign of increased responsibility and a commitment to a peace mission. However, the “reconstruction teams” were mandated under “Operation Enduring Freedom.“ That was a “robust” mission, as it is called in the technical jargon, a military mission with a combat mandate. That ran counter to the desired narrative.

Because the Germans took on a mandate in the north, the mandate of ISAF was changed

The management of the reconstruction team was taken over within the framework of ISAF, whose mandate therefore had to be expanded beyond Kabul. That happened on October 13, 2003. Shortly afterwards, the Bundestag approved the relevant mandate for the Bundeswehr. Almost at the same time, in August 2003, NATO took over the leadership of the international protection force on a German proposal.  Germany and the Netherlands had previously taken responsibility for ISAF . However, both countries lacked the necessary resources for the mission, which led them to request support from NATO. Both countries were also looking for a long-term successor to take over the leadership role. Relevantly, NATO leadership of ISAF made the mission more legitimate in the eyes of German policy makers who could now justify it as multilateral support for the alliance.

NATO’s responsibility for ISAF, and the deteriorating security situation, initially in southern Afghanistan, put Germany under considerable pressure from alliance partners to participate in the combat operations and to give up national caveats which otherwise restricted them from doing so. At the same time, German policy makers hoped to set a strong symbolic example of German responsibility with a “comprehensive approach” between the military and civilian actors without actually having to participate in the war.

In Afghanistan there can be no security without development and no development without security.

A sentence from the German government’s Afghanistan concept, adopted in a 2006 NATO statement

Although the German „comprehensive approach“ would later prove to be ineffective on the ground, German diplomats succeeded in persuading the alliance to adopt this vision. In the run-up to the 2006 NATO summit in Riga, the defense ministers of the Schröder and Merkel governments, Peter Struck and Franz Josef Jung, launched a diplomatic offensive to push the NATO mission towards nation building. This offensive proved to be largely successful. NATO adopted a central sentence from the German government’s Afghanistan concept: “There can be no security in Afghanistan without development, and no development without security.”

From 2006 the international protection force is caught in an escalation spiral

As of 2006, ISAF found itself in an escalation spiral that had much more to do with war than stabilization. This was largely thanks to the political decisions made in the earlier phase. German politicians did not want to see that the high demands of stabilizing the entire country of Afghanistan through the comprehensive approach required significantly more resources and, above all, the willingness to fight for these ideals.

The Kunduz airstrike was a clear signal that Germany could no longer implement a war avoidance strategy through symbolic participation. However, no one spoke of war – with the exception of Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and later, somewhat reluctantly, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Furthermore, the withdrawal plans of US President Barack Obama and the Taliban deal of his successor Donald Trump made it possible to Germany to postpone a critical examination of its role in Afghanistan.

That is now over with the fall of Kabul. The end of the Afghan war is as good of an opportunity as any to have an honest discussion about its significance. For Germany this means dealing with its own responsibility. As this brief sketch shows, the German role was bigger and more decisive than common sense might suspect. It is also closely related to the point that is already the most heatedly debated: the focus on “nation building”.

Any honest discussion about Germany’s role in Afghanistan will however require a thorough investigation of the facts on the ground and the motives behind them. Only then can lessons be learned for the future.


Joseph Verbovszky is doing his doctorate at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich. His research is on: “Cultural Trauma and National Security: Structural Pacifism in Germany since Reunification“

The original article was published on 07.09.2021 in the Tagesspiegel in German as “20 Jahre 9/11: Die Deutschen wollten keinen Krieg – und führten gerade deshalb einen.” 

The Article is the sole work of the author. It does not represent the views of the Atlantic Community Blog or the Atlantische Initiaitive e.V.


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