Berlin Cable

Aug 26, 2021

A Bitter End

The Biden administration’s decision to stick with Donald Trump’s “deal” with the Taliban and withdraw US forces no-matter-what has caused the disaster in Afghanistan, with Germany looking on. Angela Merkel’s time in office is ending with a foreign policy low.

A handout photo obtained via the Bundeswehr on August 21, 2021 shows evacuees from Afghanistan inside an Airbus A400 transport aircraft of the German Air Force Luftwaffe in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
All rights reserved

Angela Merkel is the first post-war German chancellor who managed to succeed where most politicians fail: to end her extraordinary career at a time of her own choosing, neither failing at the ballot box nor being pushed out by impatient internal rivals. After the victory of Donald Trump in November 2016, US President Barack Obama pleaded with her to stay on for a fourth term to steady the ship—and Merkel duly followed that advice. Now, after upcoming elections on September 26, she will leave office once a new government has been formed (which may take until early 2022). That’s the way she always wanted it to be.

Even Merkel, which her fabled tactical nous, could not have foreseen that the final weeks of her time in office would be overshadowed by events involving almost biblical scenes—devastating floods in western Germany in July, caused by extraordinarily heavy rain, and the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, leading to heart-breaking scenes of huge throngs of Afghans, many of them having worked for foreign organizations and now fearing for their lives, scrambling to get on a flight to safety.

What will happen once the US military departs Kabul’s airport for good on August 31 is anyone’s guess. German diplomat Markus Potzel, a former ambassador to Afghanistan (2016-18) and now the government’s special envoy to negotiate with the Taliban, tweeted on Thursday that his interlocutors in Doha had promised to allow Afghans with “legal documents” to leave the country on civilian flights after August 31. Germany pledged an addition $100 million in humanitarian aid in return.

But as the floods have highlighted Merkel’s failure to tackle climate change earlier and more vigorously, the events in Afghanistan cast a devastating light on the state of German foreign policy. In her downcast speech to the German Bundestag on Thursday Merkel described the developments as “terrible” and “bitter,” but managed to deflect all blame for the failure of the 20-year mission in one of the world’s poorest countries—and in particular the failure to save those who had worked to German forces and organizations in a timely and organized fashion and in the face of dire warnings since May that it was high time to act. The Greens in particular had pushed in vain for quicker and more generous help, failing as recently as June 23 to get a parliamentary initiative passed.

Against this background, Merkel’s speech and particularly her “personal” comments that to be wise after the event was both “not very complicated” and “relatively easy,” were out of tune. It also seemed a strange excuse for a policy failure on such a scale. Meanwhile, media reports already indicate that the “no one predicted what would happen”-narrative is on shaky ground both in Washington, DC, as well as in Berlin.

At the Center Once

The disaster is all the more shocking as Germany was once, if not at the center of Afghanistan policy, then pretty close to it, especially when it came to setting the international framework and ambitious goals. At the turn of 2001-02, the German government hosted the first International Conference on Afghanistan at the Hotel Petersberg near Bonn, which laid the foundation for the “new Afghanistan” after the rapid US victory over the Taliban after the September 11 terrorist attacks. With US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld having had the war fought with a “light footprint” —special forces and CIA agents with suitcases full of cash—corruption seeped into nation-building from the very start.

Ten years on, Germany again hosted the Conference on Afghanistan. By that time, the Taliban—thanks to Pakistan’s mighty Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s secret service, nominally allied with the United States and its partners, but in fact instrumental in pushing them out—were already back. President Obama tried a “time-limited surge,” which was destined to fail. At “Bonn 2,” it was already agreed that fighting forces would be withdrawn by 2014. Since then the Afghan army—designed to NATO principles and thus reliant on strong air support—fell apart not only because Afghans had little incentive to fight for the corrupt governments of Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, but also because with withdrawal of Western forces and its contractors pulled the carpet out from under the Afghan security services.

Lone Decision

All that was clear to Berlin. When US President Joe Biden took his lone decision in April to stick with Trump’s policy of unconditional surrender to the Taliban, it caused consternation in Merkel’s government, but seemingly nothing else. The idea of staying on with European allies (the United Kingdom and Italy flouted that idea) was not even explored. And while France, for example, managed to extricate the closest helpers of its forces early on, Germany’s ministries seemingly descended in a drawn-out bureaucratic fight over who would qualify as an Afghan “Ortskraft” (“locally-employed person”) worthy of rescue. The only government member showing courage (if late) was Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who ordered the Bundeswehr to launch an unprecedented rescue mission and air bridge to Uzbekistan, pinning her political future on its success.

The opposition is now calling for an enquiry, and rightly so. Within Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, the CDU/CSU, there is also criticism verging on furious disbelief about how such disaster came about. Norbert Roettgen (CDU), the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a committed transatlanticist, called the fall of Kabul “a catastrophe,” the result of a “fatal decision by the US administration.” Roettgen also criticized the Europeans for simply accepting the White House edict and “trotting behind the US” out of Afghanistan. CDU leader Armin Laschet, who hopes to succeed Merkel as chancellor, called it “the greatest debacle NATO has seen.” Putting Europe in a position of being able to act independently of the US, Laschet said, was now a priority—in other words, full-throttle support for French President Emmanuel Macron’s goal of “strategic autonomy.”

This will of course neither help the Afghans nor address the gaping holes in Germany’s foreign policy overnight. For Germany to not simply throw away what had been nurtured over 20 years would have required statecraft as well as a political willingness to take risks. At the end of the Merkel era, both are in woefully short supply.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

Read more by the author

Henning Hoff

Zeitenwende in Slow Motion

One month into the proclaimed new foreign policy era, Germany’s government is struggling to take on board what this requires.
Henning Hoff

Berlin’s Summer of Discontent

As Germany braces itself for the tough months ahead, its squabbling politicians need to get a grip and focus on what really matters most: ensuring that Ukraine wins.