Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

News from the German Front: The West’s Afghan Policy ‘has failed’

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

Five German institutes draw a condemning conclusion about the West’s policy in Afghanistan +++ Another institute alleges that the German government hides the larger portion of its Afghan military mission’s cost +++ Germany’s Minister of Defence does not know what happened to Afghans taken into custody and handed over to Afghan authorities +++ The ‘German Taliban Mujahideen’ – Mulla Omar’s German branch

I. 2010 Peace Survey

The conclusions five renowned German institutes for peace studies draw in their ‘2010 Peace Survey’, is devastating: ‘The Afghanistan policy [of the West] has failed. (1) The symptoms are known: ‘Despite a massive reinforcement of NATO troops the security situation has deteriorated and the Afghan government lost legitimacy. There isn’t even a defect democracy. Corruption is endemic, warlords and war criminals sit in government, the last presidential election has been rigged and the foreign troops are increasingly feared as occupants.’ (2) The authors also criticize that ‘[t]he Afghan government is supposed to be legitimate, in accordance with the rule of law (‘rechtsstaatlich’) and democratic – but at the same time, Karzai’s election fraud has been accepted.’ The West’s Afghanistan policy lacks central prerequisites for success, first of all competent, organized and legitimate Afghan partners and a functioning and accepted administration.’ There had been ‘more smoke-screen rhetoric than a realistic strategy’ – the report quotes President Obama calling the previous approach in Afghanistan ‘muddling through’.

To fill this gap, the five institutes propose the following criteria to measure success: ‘protection of the civilian population, a decreasing level of violence and the establishment of preconditions for a political solution and stabilisation’. And again, the authors emphasise: ‘the efficacy and legitimacy must be the focus of the policy’.

Fortunately – and honestly -, the participating scientists do not pretend that they know the way out. They state that all available policy options include ‘high risks, uncertainties and costs’. Nevertheless, they propose to apply the developmental principle of Do No Harm to military operations as well. This is what makes the difference between them and the politicians: The latter ones still think that they have to pretend a) that they know what to do (see the frequently doled out or ‘updated’ ‘new’ strategies) and b) that it can be achieved in a short time, by the next elections or so.

In the survey, four options are discussed.

Option 1, ‘the new [US] strategy as the last chance’: The yardstick for this strategy should not be its aims and means (‘like the surge’) but the criteria already established there. Whether they are met, however, should be reviewed ‘by independent Afghan and international experts’. The authors say that it cannot be judged in advance ‘whether it will bring about a turn to the better or whether it only will heat up violence’. But one thing is clear for them: An immediate withdrawal runs the risk of an ‘Afghanisation’ of the war and the war would just assume another form like after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. In the light of current enthusiasm about ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘transfer’ of all kinds of ‘responsibilities’ to Afghans, this is a warning that should be heeded. (It also corresponds with what we hear from many Afghans.) At one point, however, even the authors of this survey fall into a trap against which they warn when they write that if the transfer of security responsibilities ‘without an increase in violence […] does not succeed in three provinces at least by mid-2011,’, this approach ‘must be considered as failed’. Not timelines, but qualitative criteria should be the yardstick here also.

Option 2, the ‘end of military operations’: Saying that ‘state-building cannot be done under fire’, ‘military counter-insurgency and protection of civilians are irreconcilable’ and that ‘civilian reconstruction only flanks military operations’ (i.e. is no end in itself) and, finally, that ‘supporting a corrupt government undermines the moral justification of the international engagement’, it is stated here ‘that only giving up combat operations can make NATO win’. This part is a bit weak and doesn’t spell out how exactly this should be done and what the consequences for Afghans would be. ‘End of military operations’ is not exactly the same as ‘immediate withdrawal’.

This leads to Option 3, ‘negotiations with the Taleban’: Here, the authors it is argued that a withdrawal of the foreign forces can be made a subject of negotiations. They refer to Fotini Christia and Michael Semple’s contributions to the survey (both are authors of the much-quoted Foreign Affairs article ‘Flipping the Taliban’, see here) who advocate to support the peace jirga and to strike local deals with insurgent sub-formations. [We have argued repeatedly against the latter as the main thrust.] But in general, scepticism prevails here. The authors point to the multitude of armed actors, their low grade of control over their ‘fighters and militias’ and the conflicting interests between internal and regional players standing in the way of negotiations. At the same time, they warn against the West – as a party in this conflict – assuming the role of a broker in this process. Interestingly, the paper also hints at means that might lie between ‘business as usual’ and helter skelter full withdrawal, like (local) ceasefires while a process of talks is ongoing. Approaches like this were tried out during the Soviet/Najibullah period. This could contribute to lowering the level of violence which, in turn, might open up political space.

Finally Option 4, ‘making legitimate statehood central’: Here, the argument is made for a ‘mid-term’ approach, focusing on the ‘transformation of the Afghan statehood into a functioning political polity with ‘an effective and fair justice system, a clean and functioning police, Afghan ownership of the political process without conceding power to greedy local and regional elites’ etc. That is not new but demands a bit more quality from approaches currently seen as part of agenda. This, the authors continue would not lead to victory over the insurgents but make them superfluous. Option three (‘reconciliation’) here is called a euphemism to cover the real aim: not to talk to the Taleban but to weaken them. Finally, the authors doubt whether sufficient time is available for implementing all of this.

The authors also state bluntly that it is disputed amongst them which of those four option ‘will do least harm.

Therefore, they remain ‘reluctant’ to give recommendations. ‘It seems to be sure that neither a continuing presence of international troops nor their immediate withdrawal can establish peace.’ That leaves everybody in a dilemma. But that dilemma is the reality.

You find the German institutes 2010 Peace Survey here (German original).
II. Our costs of war

(We talk about the financial ones here, only.) At the same time, another institute, this time one specializing in economic affairs, came up with new figures on the costs of the German contribution to the US-led intervention in Afghanistan. And those figures are three times as high as what hitherto had been officially stated.

“According to our estimates, only 39% of the government expenditures (excluding interest) are declared by the government to be a cost to the Afghanistan conflict. Even of the costs within the Ministry of Defence, only about 43% of the costs are declared to be part of that sum. For the entire war cost, including the economic costs, only about 21% belongs to the official government budget for the war.”

The Deutsche Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW) in Berlin concludes that the German military mission’s costs would have run up to € 18 to 33 billion even if the Bundeswehr would withdraw by next year. Each additional year would add 2.5 to 3 billion euro. The DIW’s data is based on preliminary estimates and integrates ‘all factors that cause costs in connection with the mission’. Additional to training and salaries for the soldiers and the police missions (3), these include costs for medical treatment and care for soldiers (4), family compensations, widows’ pensions (5), expected costs for the troop withdrawal (6) and for currently increasing security costs, also for development programs in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan, costs for productivity losses as a result of injury, interest costs for loans and depreciation in value of military equipment. DIW does not include economic, ecological and cultural follow-up costs as well as procurement costs of military equipment that ‘may have been purchased anyway in the absence of the conflict’.

For 2010, so the DIW, the German government expends € 1.059 bn for the Afghanistan mission. In the government’s motion for the extension of the German ISAF mandate submitted on 18 November 2009, the ‘mission-related additional costs’ for 2010 are given with € 820.7 million (see motionhere). The DIW points at data that emerged from the German Ministry of Defence that the ministry’s budget for 2010 was exceeded by 25 per cent. The ministry has denied the media report as ’baseless’ – and did not mention the institute’s.

See the DIW report (in German) here. I received an English version of it, too, but wasn’t able to find it on the website.

III. No Prisoners Taken?

Germany might get a discussion now that Canada and the Netherlands already went through: about what happened to Afghans captured by German troops and handed over to Afghan authorities where they have to expect torture or humiliation. Interestingly enough, German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said according to Berlin daily ‘die tageszeitung’ (see the original report here) that he has no ‘reliable information’ about what happened to 33 people ‘taken into custody’ after the handover. Even more interestingly, all these cases happened before 27 April 2007 – the very day the regulations for such cases were newly issued, now including compulsory documentation. After that, no new cases occurred. This created a couple of question marks and one can be curious about what still turns up on this story.

But the discussion has not really started. Do the 70 per cent of Germans who want ‘German soldiers out of Afghanistan now’ no interest in human rights? Maybe, the reason is what another polling institute just found out: that the rejection of the German Afghanistan mission is not accompanied by a negative image of the Bundeswehr in general.


IV. We have our ‘own’ Jihadi group, too

When a group calling itself ‘German Taliban Mujahideen’ distributed a video before the German general elections last year, threatening to carry out terrorist attacks in Germany and combining it with pictures of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin or Hamburg central station, this was met with doubts (see reports here and here). Does such a group really exist? Or was it just a propaganda coup of the Taleban or al-Qaida?

Questions added up when the group issued another video in April. It showed Eric Breininger, an only 22 year old neo-Muslim from Southwestern Germany with the nom de guerre Abdul Ghaffar al-Almani, who hitherto was counted under the Islamic Jihad Union, a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that recruited Germans, Germans of Turkish origin and Turks. (One of its members, Cüneyt Ciftci, a German Turk from Bavaria, carried out a suicide attack against a US base in Sabarai, Khost province, in March 2008.) In March this year, a German court tried the so-called Sauerland Group that was arrested in 2007. It consisted of three Germans citizen who had stacked barrels full of liquid explosives for a terrorist attack – however, German intelligence managed to infiltrate the group and to replace it early on with harmless stuff.

In 2009, a drone killed IJU head Najmuddin Jalalov, an Uzbek from Tajikistan, in Pakistan. Possibly, this group was disintegrating thereafter.

Apparently, these events led to a reorganisation of the German jihadists, under the new group. On 25 May, a German newspaper (see here) reported that the German General Prosecutor is investigating the group. According to this information, it has 15 members. In September, three couples from Berlin – including children – had joined it in Waziristan. Altogether, some 200 people are said to have become jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past years.

In the meantime, Breininger and Ahmet M. from Salzgitter were killed in late April in the area of Mirali (North Waziristan) during a shootout with Pakistani troops. Jihadi internet sources have confirmed this and published his memoirs – in which it is said that the Taleban allowed the establishment of the ‘German Taliban Mujahideen’ as its sub-group. Probably, two Berliners also have been killed already, amongst them 21-year old Danny R.

Breininger’s portrait, though, is still displayed at my local train station bringing Red Army Faction aka Baader Meinhoff group days back into mind. But it is not crossed out (yet?) as was done in what filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta calls the ‘Leaden Time’, the merciless confrontation between the German state and the self-styled, now defunct urban guerrilla. Now, the German authorities see a ‘third generation’ of the indigenous Islamists emerging.


(1) The five institutes are: Forschungsstätte der Evangelischen Studiengemeinschaft (FEST) in Heidelberg; Hessische Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (HSFK); Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC); Institut für Entwicklung und Frieden (INEF) at Duisburg University; Institut für Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik (IFSH) in Hamburg.
(2) All quotes are my translations.
(3) The cost of the German Police Project Team (GPPT) is given as 128.3 million € for the period 2007-10.
(4) This is calculated on the basis of the known number of soldiers who fall ill: approximately 4.2%. So in total, 0.52% of soldiers are assumed to become permanently disabled. According to the German government, 147 soldiers had been treated with posttraumatic stress disorder in the first quarter of 2010. In 2009, 418 soldiers that served in Afghanistan got PTSD (2008: 245 for the whole Bundeswehr).
(5) For soldiers who die, their families receive compensation of 60,000€ plus a widow(er)’s pension that amounts to up to 60% of the soldiers’ income. It stops when the widow(er) remarries.
(6) According to the DIW, a 2010 German withdrawal would cost 1,021 million €. This is deducted from published Dutch data – and assumes that costs in both NATO armies would be equal.


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