The U.S.-German Security Partnership in Afghanistan: Lessons for Future Missions and the Role of Germany in the Alliance

Alexander Wochnik

Alexander Wochnik holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from Aston University, UK. His research focuses on German foreign policy, Polish foreign policy, and Polish-German relations. He was a Harry & Helen Gray/AICGS Reconciliation Fellow in the summer of 2012; a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Sciences (JSPS) Postdoctoral Researcher at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 2014; a Research Fellow at Manchester University, UK (2013-14); and in 2016 a DAAD/AICGS research fellow assessing German multilateralism through security relationships: German-U.S. Cooperation in Afghanistan. Alexander has published in the international peer-reviewed journals Geoforum, German Politics, West European Politics, and East European Politics and Societies.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

Military and civilian reconstruction engagement in Afghanistan has had a significant impact on U.S.-German relations. Whilst the United States and overall NATO engagements have received much attention in international media and scholarly debate, the German contribution has arguably been somewhat downplayed and, at times, negatively criticized. The criticism was perhaps justified in the early stages when countless caveats imposed by the Bundestag (German lower chamber of parliament) restricted the Bundeswehr’s room of maneuver (e.g., troops had to return to the barracks by nightfall; patrolling was initially only allowed from armed vehicles so that no deep and meaningful engagement with the locals was possible; various restrictions on combat were imposed, etc.), but over the years, the caveats relaxed, and Germany has proven to be a reliable partner for the U.S.

However, there have been a few ‘cultural clashes’ in the approach to Afghanistan. For example, the United States became very agitated and impatient with the Germans over the pace of training of the much needed Afghan National Police (ANP). The figures simply lagged behind expectations with only thirty-five trained police officers and just a few thousand police recruits – not the required hundreds of thousands. As a result, the Pentagon took over responsibility and outsourced the training of the police to private companies which ‘trained’ the cadets within a few weeks compared with the more thorough German curriculum. The slow German progress also resulted from its internal domestic structure (federalism). The police force is in the hands of the individual states (Länder) and not the federal government, and a strong police trade union made it very difficult to send training staff to Afghanistan. Also, the Germans were used to doing the job ‘gründlich’ (thoroughly) and no German would ever consider outsourcing a ‘holy state task’ like the training of the police to private companies (interview with an official at the German embassy). Nevertheless, in interviews with former key U.S. personnel it was revealed that U.S. officials understand the legacies of World War II and the culture of pacifism prominent among the German public, policy-makers, and within the policy-making structure that constrained a stronger German military engagement from the outset.

Apart form Germany’s military commitment in the North (with up to 5,000 troops during NATO’s ISAF mission until 2014; and with 980 soldiers in Mazar-e-Sharif as part of Resolute Support Mission since 2014), three German contributions in particular have been significant for the mission in Afghanistan that have strengthened transatlantic relations and have aided U.S. efforts in the region: 1) The German approach to reconstruction and development work; 2) Germany’s mediating role between the United States and the Taliban; 3) Germany’s long-term endurance and commitment to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. I will elaborate on the three points below.

The German approach to reconstruction and development is different because the U.S. and German perspectives of the mission differed completely at the beginning of the 2000s. Whereas the United States believed that the security component was most important and development aid was often conditional if locals cooperated with the U.S. army (for example intelligence exchanged for aid), and that economic prosperity would follow suit once order and security took hold, the Germans approached the mission from the opposite standpoint: provide development, and security would automatically follow suit. Over time, both partners had to adjust their view and both elements, the military and civilian mission, became intrinsically linked. This is partially the case because the United States withdrew – prematurely – a significant amount of their troops and redeployed them in Iraq, shifting civilian reconstruction work more to the center of attention as a way to stabilize the country. Germany led two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the North (Kunduz and Badakhshan), and U.S. officials (in various interviews with the author) expressed admiration for German efforts in that area, and how Germans were able to foster strong links with the local population. Unfortunately, whereas military cooperation between the allies worked considerably well under NATO command, the PRTs operated mostly independently without closer coordination between the participating nations so that an incoherent patchwork of different development strategies (or non-strategies) emerged. In Afghanistan, the different tribes, despite some significant diverging interests, do nevertheless have a strong sense of common Afghan identity. Thus, the external division of the provinces into PRTs led by different nations has not had the detrimental effect of splitting the country. However, it is possible that this kind of approach to a different out-of-area mission would have a devastating effect on a country. Also, distributing money directly to ministries (a practice of UK aid) turned out to fuel more corruption, which in turn led to resentment of the local population toward the foreign actors.

This is an important lesson for future missions: allies have to work closer together in both military and development policies and both areas have to be treated as mutually dependent if lasting success is to prevail. Likewise, media and academia tend to focus on either the military or the development work. It would be more helpful if both components would be treated as symbiotic.

Regarding its second contribution, Germany has broad experience in developing and practicing reconciliation policies with former enemy states (primarily with its neighbors France, Poland, the Czech Republic, and with Israel), and against this background, by the mid 2000s there were tentative attempts to bring the Taliban into the negotiations and to start a process of reconciliation. However, the German initiative failed because the United States (during the Bush administration) were not interested in negotiations with the Taliban. The view was also that the Afghan government would have felt undermined, and because the Taliban themselves were not particularly eager to enter peace talks. However, by 2008 the Taliban approached the Germans and asked for peace talks. When asked why the Taliban had not contacted the United States about starting peace talks, an interviewee responded that the Taliban felt the German had the least partial agenda and were therefore perceived as an ideal broker (interview with the author).
Ultimately those peace talks failed for several reasons, but the unexpected death of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke played a large role, mingled with the fact that after his death the United States did not continue to push the talks at a faster pace (administrative in-fighting may have been a plausible reason, and a different view expressed by key army personnel who wished to maintain a tough approach vis-à-vis the Taliban). Nevertheless, an earlier inclusion of the Taliban in an acceptable peace deal for all parties could have rendered much better results (a point easy to raise in hindsight, of course), and future missions must bear this in mind. After all, Germany, following World War II, was not treated as a pariah state indefinitely, but was rapidly included into the international community. Germany can play an instrumental role in providing counsel on how to initiate and maintain a fruitful reconciliation process between former warring parties and with this asset thus complement U.S. military capabilities.

Germany’s third contribution relates to the fact that the United States remain committed in Afghanistan beyond the end of the ISAF mission in 2014, and with no temporal limit. This is an achievement of German perseverance, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s persuasive skills and the preparation of Merkel’s influential advisor Christoph Heusgen in the Chancellery. Germany has earned much admiration expressed in interviews with various officials (interviews with the author) for its perseverance in Afghanistan, making Germany the most important partner even ahead of the United Kingdom and other allies. Some 980 German soldiers remain stationed in Mazar-e-Sharif. Afghanistan was Germany’s first out-of area mission that involved combat and casualties since World War II and it is important to realize that the country will not recede into total chaos if Germany were to assume ‘more responsibility’ in the future, as suggested by Federal President Gauck, Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Defense Minister von der Leyen at the Munich Security Conference in 2014. Military engagement is hugely unpopular among the pacifist public and a perceived failure in Afghanistan would retrospectively render the engagement as futile and only give additional fuel to categorical naysayers and restrict the room of maneuver of future German governments should a crisis situation arise.

In the past few years the old debate about Germany’s ‘power’ has reemerged with new vigor. It has become obvious that Germany sailed well through the storms of the financial, economic, and Eurozone crises, resulting in more German leadership calls (e.g., most prominently expressed by former Polish foreign Minister Radek Sikorsi, who ‘fears German inactivity more than its power’ ).[1]  Analysts have pointed to the relative weakness of France and Britain, and U.S. withdrawal from Europe, which pushes Germany further into the limelight (cf. concept of ‘reluctant hegemon’ see Paterson 2011).[2] However, more German engagement is also desired outside of Europe. The United States need Germany more than ever as a reliable partner in international affairs. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq – both of which resulted in failure if we measure the interventions against security and stability as a goal – have exposed the inadequacy and shortcomings of military operations alone. They have also undermined the perception that the United States as an external actor are able to shape outcomes abroad, and weakened the willingness to engage in out-of-area missions as expressed by various presidential candidates who categorically rule out foreign intervention.

The American public is disillusioned by both missions, restricting the options of the White House in other crisis areas. The tentative and more cautious approach to the situation in Syria may well be a result of this, allowing third parties (Russia) to seize the initiative. Admittedly, notable improvements for the Afghans have been achieved, such as a growing literacy rate, growing life expectancy, economic growth, etc., however, there is still no peace in sight and various interview partners have given a bleak outlook for Afghanistan should the international community pull out. If military intervention alone cannot render the desired outcome, it must be accompanied by additional measures of a diplomatic and ‘softer’ nature. Germany’s role could well complement and flank the United States’ engagement abroad by drawing from its own strengths such as its reconciliation experience and partial diplomatic success in Ukraine. The only question is: is Germany ready to assume this role?

There are some signs that Germany is indeed willing to assume more responsibility and demonstrate that the Munich Conference speeches were not just empty rhetoric but meant to prepare the public for ‘more to come.’ In May 2016 Defense Minister von der Leyen announced the demand of 14,300 more soldiers and 4,400 civilians for the Bundeswehr – vacancies that shall be filled within the next seven years by hiring new staff and restructuring the Bundeswehr. Simultaneously, the budget for the army shall grow from the current EUR 34.3 to EUR 39.3 billion. This will still be short of the two-percent-of-GDP-until-2020 target anchored in the 2014 NATO Wales Summit Declaration because Germany’s GDP will grow at the same time as well. But after years of shrinking Bundeswehr budgets, this is a right step to modernize the ill-equipped army. Right now it would not be prudent if Washington belittled the German and other European nations’ efforts with a simple comparison of and reference to the U.S. defense budget, which grew during the Bush years to 4.9 percent in 2010 and which has been greatly reduced to approximately four percent to date. The mantra of ‘burden sharing’ voiced by U.S. representatives over the last years is also a consequence of a U.S. defense budget that has grown and not the sole fault of unwilling Europeans to do or spend more. Especially now that Europe has been facing a humanitarian refugee crisis for the past two years, Germany and other European states should have an incentive for participating in crisis prevention measures, post-conflict reconstruction, reconciliation initiatives, and state-building promotion abroad.
Dr. Alexander Wochnik was a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow from March 1 to April 30, 2016. He was a Harry & Helen Gray/AGI Reconciliation Fellow in the summer of 2012. More recently, he was a Research Fellow at Manchester University, UK.

[1] Sikorski, Radołław, ‘I fear Germany’s power less than her inactivity’, Financial Times, 28 November 2011,

[2] Paterson, William (2011) “The Reluctant Hegemon? Germany Moves Centre Stage in the European Union,” JCMS Vol. 49 Supplement, pp. 57-75.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.