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Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very grateful to Körber-Stiftung and Der Spiegel for giving me the opportunity at this long-planned event to make a few key points regarding the issue of Afghanistan.
As we are speaking, our troops are continuing their dangerous and harrowing evacuation operation at Kabul Airport. Last night, they were involved in a firefight.
I will be honest with you – I do not find it easy to take a step back from this situation as it unfolds to talk about Afghanistan in a wider context.
The developments of the last days in Afghanistan have hit us all to the core.
Our first reaction to the rapid advance of the Taliban and the fall of Kabul about a week ago was shock and dismay.
This was quickly joined by disappointment, and for many by fury and despair.
We are struggling for answers that are not easy to find. We are looking for explanations that may not be final today, nor tomorrow.
We can sense in this situation that much is at stake. This is about much more than just the question of whether these 20 years of pursuing a comprehensive approach of military operation, diplomacy and development cooperation have been worthwhile.
Afghanistan is also about our identity as a nation, a nation that wants to stand up for and do what is right.
The Bundeswehr operation in Afghanistan, which has always been symbolic of the entire spectrum covered by the comprehensive approach, has subconsciously become part of our identity over the years. It has become synonymous with Bundeswehr operations in general.
Even those who had little interest in it were aware of the fact that our troops were deployed there. Even they believed that we were there for a good reason, pursuing a good goal and doing a good job. They are now watching in disbelief and looking for explanations.
Before a final assessment can be made, we all have an important job to do.
And I do not mean just the complex, robust and dangerous military operation in Kabul.
Nor just the political repercussions in Berlin.
What I mean is that together, as a society, we must tackle one of the most difficult and fundamental tasks that we have:
Our society as a whole must deal with the difficult realities of international politics, and with the role played by Germany and Europe.
This mission in Afghanistan was our mission.
- Our country’s mission,
- Our governments’, our parliament’s, our diplomats’, our troops’, our police officers’ and development experts’ mission.
- Our parties’, our intellectuals’ and our journalists’ mission, regardless of their attitude towards this operation.
- And of course it was the mission of our people, especially of the volunteers, the donors, the activists and everyone else committed to its cause.
Not everyone carries the same responsibility, this much is obvious.
But everyone was and is affected, and deeply so.
Since our society as a whole is involved in this mission, we must now answer the difficult questions together.
We must process this together to overcome the shock and to make space for future responsible policies.
What, therefore, are the realities we must face and the conclusions we must draw now?
I would like to make five fundamental points with regard to the Afghanistan mission.
The first point is: the Bundeswehr operation in Afghanistan was the right thing to do. And Peter Struck was right: our security was defended at the Hindu Kush.
During the decision phase in 2001, shortly after 9/11, the German government at the time approved the operation in Afghanistan.
This was the right decision for two reasons:
First, because it was important for our own security that Afghanistan no longer be a safe haven for Islamist terrorists.
9/11 could have happened here, too.
Second, because the September 11 attacks triggered NATO’s mutual defence clause. This meant that we had to honour our commitment as an ally of the United States. We could not and would not stand on the sidelines.
In a dangerous world, Alliance solidarity is an invaluable asset.
Germany, and other countries, were fully aware of that back then. It was a broad coalition that joined together to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan. It involved many states and included some that were not NATO members.
The second point is: It was we Europeans, we Germans who wanted to achieve more in Afghanistan than just a military victory.
At the 2002 Bonn Conference, the Social-Democrat and Green Party coalition government and its partners insisted that the military operation be accompanied by a comprehensive relief operation. The goal was to turn Afghanistan into a genuine democracy.
The operation was to involve infrastructure, civil society and administration, education and healthcare, the rule of law and women’s rights, the media and much more.
These goals are understandable, even today.
We Europeans had experienced first-hand how important it is to be given a second chance after a war has ended.
All those speaking of unrealistic expectations now, or even illusions, would be wise to remember that impulse very well.
That leads me to my third point: While we did achieve the ambitious objectives we set ourselves, we were only able to hold onto what we had achieved as long as we were willing to fight the Taliban.
Today, we realise: Our achievements did not take root among Afghans sufficiently and deeply enough to survive without external military protection for any length of time.
The past week has shown us that most Afghans did not defend these achievements in the way we had hoped they would.
It is true – and let me say this loud and clear – that it was the Afghan armed forces that suffered incredible losses year after year. We should never forget that.
But it is also true that it was not only we who withdrew from Afghanistan. At the end of the day, the Afghan army withdrew as well.
The most important questions we will have to ask in the coming years will be the following: Did we and the Afghans want the same thing?
Why was our operation not sustainable? Why did the Afghans not do more in the end?
While there is already a fervent public debate about this, I myself will not make a premature assessment.
But there is one thing I would like to conclude. A more sustainable success in Afghanistan would have required robust military efforts far beyond this year.
That leads me directly to my fourth point, which has to do with the discussion about the United States and its role: Early this year, would a majority of members of the German Bundestag have been willing to raise their hands in favour of extending the Afghanistan operation indefinitely, at high military intensity and at the risk of German soldiers dying in action? Would such a decision have been met with broad public support? Would a broad debate in support of the operation have taken place in the media, the public and social networks? Would all those who are so vocally committed to Afghanistan now have been willing to support such a long and hard operation, probably involving heavy casualties?
If we cannot answer these questions with a clear “yes”, we should refrain from pointing the finger at other nations, and at the US in particular.
The simple truth is: Such a mission did not and will not win public approval in Germany. And the same holds true for our partner countries.
This is nothing new. Even in 2001, there was no such ambition, nor majority support for it.
It was clear from the start that one day, the Afghans would have to assume full responsibility for their security again. Everybody in Afghanistan knew that, too.
This is why it is unjustified to make generalised claims about how we betrayed the Afghan people.
Together, over the course of 20 years, we made great sacrifices to improve the situation in Afghanistan. For 20 years, we assumed this responsibility for Afghanistan and the Afghan people. That is a lot. We have done a lot.
That leads us to my fifth point: If we ask the difficult questions now, and rightly so, then we should think long and hard about what we want to do with the answers, how we want to deal with them.
True, it is important to draw lessons learned from 20 years of operations in Afghanistan.
But for me, the overarching question is this: as Germans, who do we want to be in the future?
Germany is committed to democracy and human rights, the rule of law and a free market economy. We are committed to individual liberty and individual responsibility. To multilateralism and international law.
You just mentioned the frigate Bayern. Its voyage in the Indo-Pacific is a symbol of precisely this commitment.
But how far are we really willing to go to strengthen, protect and defend our values and Achievements?
By which means? At which expense? Within which Limits?
Ladies and gentlemen,
regardless of when the international military evacuation operation will end, we will keep doing what we can to support those in need of protection in Afghanistan and to help them leave the country. Persistently, but also with a realistic sense of what is possible.
Afghanistan is a reminder of just this: the fact that while we may be persistent, our means are often somehow limited.
If we have learned that, which conclusions should we as a country draw from it for the future?
I cannot provide a definitive and comprehensive answer today, either.
What I can say is this:
First: We need a Germany that is unwavering in its commitment to the West. Our "Westbindung" remains crucial for the fate of our country.
I will never join the chorus of – supposedly self-critical – voices who announce the demise of the West; a West that is obsolete, disintegrating, spent.
NATO is and will remain the core of our Westbindung. In fact, allied solidarity within NATO is the only security guarantee that truly has the power to protect the security of the German and the European people.
Of course, this security guarantee must be complemented and enhanced by a greater ability to act of the Europeans in the European Union.
That is a long and rocky path. But we are on it right now; we are walking it without diminishing NATO and the West.
Second: We need a Germany, a Europe and an Atlantic community that give themselves the means to be resolute, effective and persistent champions of the West, to fight for it and to defend it.
Third, to do that we need a more honest security Policy.
- We must be honest about the true nature of threats and enemies.
- And about the cost of freedom and peace in Europe.
Fourth, we need a sober assessment
- Of what the objectives of our foreign and security policy can realistically be.
- Of what we want foreign and security policy to achieve.
- And about the means we need for that.
And then, fifth, and allow me to say that this point is particularly close to my heart:
I want a Germany that acts more warmly and respectfully towards its military personnel.
The Bundeswehr is a guarantor of freedom. This does not always receive enough recognition in our country.
Our military personnel are risking their lives for us on operations, even right now, and not just in Afghanistan. In the Sahel, in Mali, for example.
Military personnel have lost their lives; some fell right in front of their fellow soldiers.
Many that return home are deeply wounded, visibly or invisibly.
My thoughts, all our thoughts go to these people in this moment. Their service and their sacrifices have not been in vain.
In spite of all critical reflection, we should not disparage our considerable achievements in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.
However, it is also appropriate to be humble and consider our weaknesses, given the current events in Afghanistan. If we can openly and honestly discuss how Germany, Europe and NATO can do better on future operations, we have reason to look towards future challenges with confidence – even in the face of a “global disorder”.
Thank you very much.