Which country has the bloodiest history

The Bundeswehr and the long war in Afghanistan

Was it worth it? This question is not only being asked by the families of the 59 Bundeswehr soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan.

For German soldiers, the mission was expressly not intended to be a combat mission - but only a brief intervention to stabilize a destroyed, isolated country in which the world's most famous terrorist Osama bin Laden had planned the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But everything turned out very differently: Germany still takes part in the US-led war on terror - in Afghanistan with a maximum of 1,300 soldiers. The new mandate ends on January 31, 2022, but an earlier withdrawal is not excluded.

Success and failure

According to the federal government, the intervention in Afghanistan cost German taxpayers around 16.4 billion euros by the end of 2018. Of this, twelve billion euros went to the deployment of the Bundeswehr.

Today Afghanistan is on paper an Islamic republic with a democratic constitution. Women sit in parliament, girls go to school. There are new streets, hospitals and universities. Dozens of radio and TV stations ensure lively debates.

But the country has not found peace almost 20 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The conflict in Afghanistan is still one of the bloodiest in the world. More than half of the population lives in dire poverty. The Islamic Republic cannot finance itself without international help, corruption and greed for power are eating away at the state.

The Taliban regime, which was overthrown in December 2001, is seeking direct negotiations with the US to return to power. The radical Islamists now control half of Afghanistan again. A political solution is not in sight.

Nevertheless, the new US President Joe Biden - like his predecessor Donald Trump - wants to end America's longest war quickly. And if the US troops withdraw, the Bundeswehr also withdraws.

Was it worth it? DW asked contemporary witnesses that.

Carl-Hubertus von Butler (70) was the first German commander in Afghanistan from January to June 2002, after which he completed many short deployments in the country. The retired Army General comes from a family of soldiers and now lives on an estate in Bavaria.

Carl-Hubertus von Butler

"It was like an earthquake," remembers Carl-Hubertus von Butler of his first impression of Kabul in January 2002. At that time, Afghanistan had been through 20 years of war: the Soviet occupation, the civil war, the Taliban regime. The pictures from back then still accompany him today. "You hardly saw any people on the street. Everything was destroyed. You have to imagine it like Berlin after the Second World War."

Until September 11, 2001, the German general knew "next to nothing" about the distant country in Central Asia. That changed suddenly when NATO declared the alliance case after the terrorist attacks. The USA flew the first air raids on October 7th. On December 5th, an international conference on the Petersberg near Bonn decided to build a democratic state in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council issued the mandate for an international protection force (ISAF) in Kabul.

"We were very naive back then"

It was the marching order for Carl-Hubertus von Butler, who led the first brigade in Kabul: "They thought it would be done quickly. A maximum of one or two years. Then Afghanistan will be stabilized and possibly even democratized - and we will go out , and everything is good."

The Bundeswehr initially expected a brief deployment in Afghanistan

But that was a mistake. "I think we were really naughty back then," von Butler admits straightforwardly. Afghan history and the years of violence were completely misunderstood. But above all: "We failed to realize that an Afghan central government would not be able to intervene in the provinces at all. We failed to recognize that the warlords had enormous authority in the provinces." By warlords he also means the mujahideen, who with US help had already fought against the Soviet occupation.

The American military made them partners again - a heavy burden on democracy that was to come about with international aid. "The mandate was simply set too high," emphasizes Carl-Hubertus von Butler.

In October 2003, the ISAF operational area was expanded to include the entire country.

German soldiers died in suicide attacks and in combat - especially in the embattled province of Kunduz. Many civilians also lost their lives there in September 2009 because a German colonel ordered a devastating air strike on the Taliban.

"On a knife edge"

"I talked about the war personally from around 2007," recalls the general, who has been retired since 2012. But what could ISAF actually achieve? "Soldiers can never provide permanent stability." Only a politically and economically stable state can do that. There was no such thing - and "the United Nations were hopelessly overwhelmed".

Today he sees Afghanistan "on a knife edge". The NATO protection force has now become a training mission for the Afghan army. The leading power USA has not talked about state building for a long time. Neither does Butler.

"We have managed to ensure that Afghanistan no longer poses a threat to the international community, at least for the foreseeable future," he sums up. "It was a commitment for the peace of the international community, the modern world, with a great sacrifice. But to say that it was all in vain or that it was one disaster, I would clearly contradict that."

As a soldier, Dunja Neukam (48) served four times in Afghanistan. After a total of twelve years with the troops, the trained nurse from Neuwied near Koblenz left the Bundeswehr.

Dunja Neukam in Afghanistan

Dunja Neukam remembers her first arrival in Kabul very well: The Bundeswehr plane headed steeply towards the runway in order to offer as little attack surface as possible. A so-called tactical landing that made her feel sick. That was in June 2002. "Outside we hit 50 degrees and there was nothing colorful, it was all sand and gray." For the first time she saw women in burqas. "That was a completely different world."

But the reception was friendly: "The Afghans always waved and were happy, including the children." The German soldiers were part of the ISAF, the multinational force that was supposed to secure the capital Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. Dunja Neukam, then 30 years old and medical sergeant, worked in the intensive care unit in the "Camp Warehouse", an ISAF military base. In addition to soldiers from various countries, she also treated Afghans, including the former King Zahir Shah, who had returned from exile.

Suicide attack on the Bundeswehr

She also got around in the war-torn city. "We always pointed to the German flag on our uniform jackets, and then our thumbs went up: good, good! That was a nice feeling at the time." The soldiers drove through the city in unarmored vehicles, giving away sweets to the children. "When I was out there for the first time, it was really very inexperienced."

That changed suddenly in June 2003: a suicide bomber blew up a bus carrying German soldiers in Kabul, four of them died and many more were injured. Dunja Neukam had only recently left Afghanistan and knew the comrades well. "I saw her still fit and happy in Kabul. That changed everything."

There were repeated attacks on the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan

After this attack, the Bundeswehr tightened security rules, and distrust of the Afghans grew. "You drove in armored vehicles, heavily armed in the convoy, you didn't let anyone on the vehicle." That, says Neukam in retrospect, was just a year after the warm welcome. "I was then very cautious about the Afghans. I didn't have that naive and friendly feeling," she remembers. "Behind every Afghan you saw an enemy, you have to put it that way."

"What am I doing here?"

Nevertheless, she continued to believe in the success of the mission: "I was firmly convinced that economic help, good work and education could help the country get back on its feet." But this trust also crumbled when the Bundeswehr repeatedly got into heavy fighting with the Taliban in the north of the country.

The year 2010, which Dunja Neukam spent half in Kunduz, was particularly lossy. In the meantime she had started studying psychology and stood by her comrades with worries and needs as a so-called psychology sergeant. Some of them would have doubted the mission: "What am I actually doing here? That was another question that I was asked. Tell me what I'm actually doing here!"

She also took stock of her four missions and is grateful for the experiences, good and bad. "Ultimately, when I see where Afghanistan is now, it wasn't worth it," says the trained nurse who now works with severely multiple handicapped people. Too many comrades lost their lives for this, were wounded in body or soul. And what is it all for? "With blood and sweat they fought for towns that are now back in the hands of the Taliban. I think that's really bad."

The Potsdam historian Sönke Neitzel (52) holds the only chair for military history in Germany. In his new book "German Warriors", Neitzel also sheds light on the deployment of the German armed forces in Afghanistan.

The military historian Sönke Neitzel

"The Germans never had a strategic vision for Afghanistan," criticizes the military historian Sönke Neitzel. "It was always about NATO and Germany's weight in foreign policy." In order to show alliance solidarity after the attacks of September 11th, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sent the Bundeswehr to Afghanistan - with the intention of withdrawing them six months later. "At best, the Afghans were of secondary importance."

But nothing came of the planned short deployment. The Bundeswehr stayed and the security situation worsened. The Taliban and other insurgents later attacked the German contingent in northern Afghanistan directly - a phase that escalated in April 2009. The Bundeswehr had to fight for the first time in its history.

The commanders and combat troops in Kunduz were also ready for this, emphasizes the military historian, who has evaluated soldiers' diaries and operational reports. But not the Federal Government: "Chancellor Merkel didn't want that, the Defense Minister didn't want that, and neither did the Inspector General of the Bundeswehr." When the soldiers demanded heavy weapons and more forces, they fell on deaf ears in Berlin at first. "We stay out of it, that's the Afghans' business," they said.

Soldiers who shouldn't fight

This was a dilemma for the soldiers, because they couldn't stay out of it - on the one hand because of the attacks by the Taliban, on the other hand because of the pressure from the ISAF headquarters to crack down on the insurgents. The German soldiers, so Neitzel's conclusion, "sat between all stools". A withdrawal was out of the question for the German government: "For political reasons, they wanted to continue to be the third largest troop provider in Afghanistan. As such, Germany had weight in the EU, the United Nations and, above all, NATO."

The allies reacted irritably to this contradicting behavior of the Germans and sometimes mistook the Bundeswehr soldiers for wimps. "Anyone who tried to make an objective judgment knew that the German soldiers can and want to fight, but they are not allowed to," says Neitzel. He locates the reasons in German history: "The event of the Third Reich and World War II still had a massive impact on German political culture. But it is also used as an excuse."

Chancellor Angela Merkel on a troop visit to Afghanistan

Annoyed allies

The result: For reasons of foreign policy, Germany is always "a little involved" in multinational operations, but does not want to fight if possible. "Of course that annoys everyone in NATO enormously."

This "strategic failure of the federal government", as Neitzel calls it, has led to the soldiers' loyalty to the state being weakened. He is therefore not surprised "that the AfD is so popular among the soldiers". Many who were previously loyal voters of the Merkel party CDU would probably vote for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) today.

The Afghanistan mission raised the question of why Germany has armed forces for 45 billion euros a year - including combat troops, special forces and expensive weapon systems. But the federal government consistently evades this question, criticizes Neitzel. "At the strategic level, we have learned nothing from the Afghanistan mission."

Editor's note: This article first appeared on September 11, 2020 and was updated on March 23, 2021 with a view to the Bundestag's extension of the Bundeswehr mission.