On Wednesday, former German defence minister Peter Struck died, he who coined the controversial sentence that Germany’s security needs to be defended even ‘at the Hindukush’. Almost no other statement has shaped the Afghanistan-related discussion in Germany like this one. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks back at this debate and finds it being more of a ‘navel-gazing’, often not figuring in Afghans and their opinions at all. Struck’s famous quote has contributed to this trend, and he has missed the opportunity to explain better what he meant, widening the perspective to the invaded country and its people.(*)
Peter Struck was for Germany what former Defence Secretary John Reid was for the UK: the man who provided the most-quoted quote in his country on Afghanistan.(1) The social democrat and former Minister of Defence who now headed the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (which also runs an office in Kabul), died from a heart attack in Berlin, at age 69, on 19 December.
When visiting British forces in Helmand in April 2006, Reid had stated that ‘we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction’. Struck’s famous sentence had come two years earlier.(2) In a government policy statement in the Bundestag (the German parliament) on 11 March 2004, he said that ‘Our security is defended also at the Hindukush, albeit not exclusively.’ Lesser known is the second part of this sentence: ‘… when threats to our country are forming there, as in the case of internationally organised terrorists’. (Here, for the record, is the original version in German, from the Bundestag’s protocol: ‘Unsere Sicherheit wird nicht nur, aber auch am Hindukusch verteidigt, wenn sich dort Bedrohungen für unser Land wie im Fall international organisierter Terroristen formieren.’) Both Struck and Reid have been ridiculed and attacked for their statements. Struck’s statement has been further ideologised by replacing his term ‘security’ with ‘freedom’, even quality media, when ‘quoting’ him (see here or here).
Struck was attacked by the pacifist camp for using Afghanistan as an excuse for turning the Bundeswehr, the German army, into an interventionist instrument ‘out of area’, breaking down constitutional barriers preventing the Bundeswehr intervening abroad and ‘throwing international law overboard’ (read such a position here, for example). His statement was interpreted as another worrying sign that the government of post-1989 reunified and fully sovereign Germany was asserting a new, aggressive role in the world. At the same time, Struck was unable to mobilise support for his hypothesis. He reached neither the German political mainstream nor even his own party. ‘He was able to convince only a few of us’, Klaus Bölling, former government spokesman and member of Struck’s party, wrote in 2010, countering with the question ‘what the Germans have lost at the Hindukush’.
This discussion was fuelled further by the government’s bizarre insistence that the German soldiers were not fighting in a ‘war’ in Afghanistan; instead, the expression ‘war-like situation’ (kriegsähnliche Zustände) was coined. These verbal acrobatics were a result of the ongoing dispute about the constitutionality of the German military mission in Afghanistan as well as of insurance issues related to possible compensation claims by soldiers (read here, for example). This situation lasted until December 2010 when Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a visit to Afghanistan, finally ‘called it a “war”’, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung put it in its headline.
But interesting enough, the fact that a clear majority of Germans had been rejecting the military role of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan for years did not lead to consequences at the ballot box. The interest of Germans voters, and opponents of the Afghanistan mission, did not go deep enough to take priority over other, domestic issues. As a result, a Very Grand Coalition(3) of all parties in the federal parliament (but The Left) to this day have maintained their support for the Afghanistan mission without causing themselves too much trouble.
This is because what seems to be a discussion about Afghanistan is in fact a discussion about Germany. It is of course relevant to discuss whether German troops should be deployed abroad or not or whether the deaths of German soldiers are ‘useless’ or have occurred in a worthwhile operation. The country has its own version of Lord Ashdown’s argument that ‘It is not worth wasting one more life in Afghanistan’ (read here).
This debate, or ‘Heimatdiskurs’, as Michael Daxner calls it (read his AAN blog here)(4), often turns into a ‘discriminatory discourse against the backward and corrupt Afghans’ who ungratefully reject ‘our’ ‘benevolent and well-intended activities and policies’ and therefore are not considered to deserve our involvement or even any empathy. (It also tends to overrate Germany’s role in Afghanistan; although many Afghans, indeed, are disappointed with Germans and, in extension, Europeans who they still often see as a kind of neutral third force between the West and its neighbours who all are perceived as striving for dominance.) The influential German political magazine Der Spiegel in September 2011 even discovered ‘the Germans’ humanitarian overzeal’ in Afghanistan. It opined that Germany ‘had promised most and failed most’, that in a benefit-cost analysis, its involvement in Afghanistan was ‘unjustifiable’ and that ‘Germany’s self-defence, as proclaimed by Struck, was unnecessary and even did not take place’. Afghans and their opinions, hopes and wishes rarely figure in this debate.
Putting the Latin motto of De mortius nil nisi bene (say nothing bad about a deceased) aside for a moment, Struck, unfortunately, has contributed to this line of argument by reducing Afghanistan to a terrorist threat. After his quote spread like a wildfire, and was bended and reworded in the media, he had plenty of opportunity to explain better what he meant. He could have widened the perspective to better include aspects of the invaded country and its people’s needs. He could have said, for example, that ‘when we defend Afghans’ security and consider this a worthy undertaking, we also defend our country’s security at the Hindukush’. (Of course, only if these words had been underpinned by adequate deeds.) But he missed this opportunity, and even tended to use other stereotypes about Afghanistan and to overrate the influence of the foreign intervention forces. In a debate in May 2010, about the troop withdrawal, he said: ‘if we would leave now, the Taleban would regain the political and military power. The country would fall back far into pre-modern times’.
Currently, Germany’s Heimatdiskurs is being drawn into another navel-gazing exercise by the government, particularly the defence ministry, about the technicalities of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It looks as if this is designed to cover up what German security blogger Hauke Friedrichs calls ‘false success stories’ from Afghanistan, with reference to the German government’s latest Fortschrittsbericht (progress report) on Afghanistan.
Indeed, the report contains a number of omissions, does not give the full picture on important issues. When it states, for example, that ‘good governance and rule of law are targets the implementation of which is still pending’, it fails to mention that there are grave imbalance between the executive, legislative and judicative powers and that the independence of the judicial sector is gravely in jeopardy. Where it says that the anti-corruption body HOOAC (the High Office of Oversight for Anticorruption) ‘has started a series of investigations against officials since its establishment’, it should also have mentioned the HOOAC’s head’s statements that his efforts are hampered by intervention from top officials, that ‘the law is not being applied to high-ranking officials’, that ‘our system doesn’t work for people’s welfare’ and that, according to a NGO coalition, no money was allocated in the government budget for next year for combating corruption. When it is stated in the report, that Afghanistan’s media ‘are growing more and more in its role as the fourth power’, it ignores that genuinely independent media – i.e. those not financed by warlords – face increasing budget restraints due to funding cuts from abroad and had to lay off many journalists, that security fears have led to fewer women working in media, that violence against journalists is increasing in general and that the government has repeatedly tried to limit media freedom.
Finally, when it is stated in the report that ‘the security situation remains complicated; it continued to improve slightly in 2012, the trend of the previous year of a decline of security-related incidents (SRI) lasted’.(5) But first, data for 2012 should not (only) be compared with 2011 and 2010, but trends be established on the basis of the development over whole post-2001 intervention period. This would have shown, more realistically, that the level of SRIs has been higher in 2012 than in all years but 2010 and 2011. Second, as Friedrichs points out, the number of SRIs is mainly a measurement that concerns the security of foreign troops, not the Afghan population. This means, first, that the level of insecurity remains on an extremely high level and, second, that the SRI indicator is West-centred, not Afghanistan-centred.
(*) The translations of German quotes used in this text are mine.
(1) The other quote from Germany is by former (protestant) bishop Margot Käßmann, from two sermons delivered on Christmas Eve 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010: ‘Nothing is well in Afghanistan.’ It is followed by: ‘All those strategies, they have been long misleading us over the fact that soldiers just use weapons and that therefore also civilians are being killed’. The German original is: ‘Nicht ist gut in Afghanistan. All diese Strategien, sie haben uns lange darüber hinweggetäuscht, dass Soldaten nun einmal Waffen benutzen und eben auch Zivilisten getötet werden.’
(2) Some sources say that he already stated something similar during a press conference on 5 December 2002 but the link to the press conference does not work any more. (The German ministry of defence only has archived press statements back to 2010.) See for example: Manfred Görtemaker, ‘Von Potsdam bis Kabul: Deutsche Außenpolitiken seit 1945’ (go to this link, then download).
(3) We call a coalition between our two largest parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, a Grand Coalition. It is undesired by most and happens when both fail to muster a parliamentary majority together with their preferred minor coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats (CDU) or the Greens (SPD). Such types of coalitions exist in a number of federated states (Länder) and are the expected outcome of the coming, September 2013 federal election.
(4) See a new book on this issue (in German): Michael Daxner and Hannah Neumann (eds), Heimatdiskurs: Wie die Auslandseinsätze der Bundeswehr Deutschland verändern, Bielefeld: Transcript Edition Politik, 2012.
(5) No English version of this report available yet.
Photo: (C) Bundeswehr/Modes, here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020