Chancellor Merkel’s visit with German troops this week in Afghanistan was not prepared for an incident that could generate enormous problems for Germany’s remaining presence in the country. The killing of sixteen Afghanistan civilians by an American soldier has the makings of another wave of vengeance threats and attacks similar to those following the recent burning of copies of the Koran. The German, American, and other troops in Afghanistan are in danger of becoming Taliban targets.
Germany and the U.S. have set 2014 as a withdrawal target date for their troops to leave Afghanistan. There remains significant debate over the setting of that date. It offers the Taliban time to simply wait out that period before they attempt to refill a vacuum in this very unstable state. The argument that Afghan troops and police can and should assume control of their country is the mantra in Washington and Berlin. Yet the questions about the viability of those forces continue to be difficult to answer.
The fatigue with the war in the U.S. has been escalating. Even the Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said recently that it was time for the U.S. to get out and leave Afghanistan to the Afghans. The majority of Germans have supported withdrawal for years, never having been convinced of the mission from the very beginning.
The troop withdrawal date has been set against the clock of domestic politics, as much as it has been set against the clock of progress on the ground in Afghanistan. Those two clocks tell very different times.
Germany marked its tenth anniversary of engagement in Afghanistan last December. During the past decade, Germany continuously expanded its presence. By February of 2010, the Afghanistan mandate involved over five thousand soldiers and additional engagement of Tornado jets. Germany also went ahead with setting up Provisional Reconstruction Teams. The German base in Masar-i-Scharif was eventually handed over to Afghan forces last summer and troop reductions have already begun. However, in the ten years of engagement, Germany has lost 53 troops, and the United States has lost 1,906.
Which Way Out?
The scramble for the exit door has begun on both sides of the Atlantic. President Obama has an election to deal with and he needs to deliver the message that the 2014 target is being kept. He might even use the platform of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago at the end of May to announce more steps in the direction of withdrawals–perhaps even earlier. Yet that will also need to be closely coordinated with the NATO partners. Just how that agenda will play out remains to be seen. The original slogan for the Afghanistan mission was “in together–out together.” That latter step will prove to be as difficult a challenge as was the former.
With the U.S. Congress threatening major cuts in the Pentagon’s budgets, there will be significant attention aimed at the European defense spending targets. The transatlantic argument over burden-sharing will continue to drag on with impatience growing in Washington, where the impression of European unwillingness to put more defense resources on the NATO table is gaining traction. The ability to sustain support for a struggling Afghanistan will be hampered by such squabbling. Furthermore, this comes at a time when the crisis in Syria continues to unfold, and the danger of war in the Middle East between Israel and Iran intensifies.
Afghanistan was supposed to be the illustration of how NATO could not only win a war but also hand over responsibility to the Afghans and declare mission accomplished. That was the goal. The slogan had been: clear, hold, and build–and then transfer. Yet the definition of each of those four components has remained difficult to formulate.
As Chancellor Merkel visited her troops in Masar-i-Scharif, she was asked whether the situation in Afghanistan was ready for the withdrawal of ISAF forces. Her response was at first ambiguous, noting that the intention remains to follow through. She had to later affirm the 2014 target date. Yet it was clear that Merkel was worried about both the withdrawal and the situation that will follow it.
The Long Road Ahead
Both Germany and the U.S., along with the many other countries contributing ISAF troops, have invested heavily in Afghanistan during the past ten years, and have suffered losses in the process. The threats to the stability of the country remain formidable. Those who wait to resume a reign of terror see an opportunity in which the clock works in their favor. Those Afghans who seek to avoid a return to the Taliban dictatorship are equally determined to sustain what has been gained in the last decade.
The dangers for those Afghans who do not wish to see a Taliban reprisal do not only come from the enemy within. The dangers also lie in the temptation of those who want to walk away from what appears to be a quagmire. That has happened once before in and to Afghanistan and the consequences are recorded well beyond its borders.
Most Germans and Americans want their troops home as soon as possible. The arguments they have heard as to why they remain in Afghanistan are wearing thin. For Americans, it has been the nation’s longest war, surpassing the conflict in Vietnam. The war in Afghanistan will always be related to September 11–now over a decade ago.
For Germany, there has been a long debate about what to call its presence in Afghanistan. This debate has revealed a struggle with the word “war” itself and with the reasons Germany is engaged there.
Long after they have left, both countries will struggle for many years to come to grips with the legacy of Afghanistan. However, that legacy will continue to make itself present as Afghanistan continues to struggle with its future.