After nearly two ambivalent decades in Afghanistan, Germany has begun an equivocal debate over how to remember its lengthiest – and most controversial – postwar military deployment.
More than 150,000 women and men in Germany’s armed forces served in Afghanistan since 2001, and 59 died there.
With 1,100 soldiers on the ground as part of the 9,600-strong Nato mission, Germany was the second-largest deployment after the US. But in April, following the lead of US president Joe Biden, Berlin announced it was withdrawing its troops from northern Afghanistan.
Greeting the final troop plane near Hanover, Brig Gen Ansgar Meyer, the last commander of the contingent, told his troops they had “worked long and hard … You have fulfilled your task”.
German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a statement: “A historic chapter comes to an end, an intensive deployment that challenged and shaped the Bundeswehr, in which the Bundeswehr proved itself in combat.”
Asked why she was in the US rather than in Germany to receive the final plane from Mazar-i-Sharif, the minister said the soldiers requested a low-key arrival. Her absence has prompted vocal criticism and a debate over what kind of ceremony – if any – should be held to remember a mission about which many Germans remain uneasy.
Some are calling for a formal ceremony at the defence ministry’s Berlin representation, and a new home in Germany for a 27-tonne memorial stone brought back from the Afghan base.
Others would like to see soldiers gathered on the square before the Bundestag parliament, which approved the mission. Still others who, given Germany’s history, remain uneasy at the sight of soldiers gathered in large numbers, would prefer to see no ceremony at all.
For two decades German politicians have repeated to voters that their security was being defended in Afghanistan, countering and dismantling Taliban power structures that had sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement, which carried out the September 11th, 2001, attacks in the US.
But surveys show a German population stubbornly split down the middle over military engagement, particularly over the Afghanistan conflict, dubbed a “forever war”.
Complicating matters are reports on how the Taliban is regaining control of large swathes of the country. On Monday, Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild, carried a full-page interview with a man said to be a “Taliban judge” whose Sharia law rulings include “stonings, hangings and hacking-off of hands”.
“For gays there are two sentences,” said Gul Rahim to Bild. “Either stoning or he has to stand behind a wall that falls on him, the wall must be 2½-3m high.”
Before the looming US troop withdrawal, Berlin is expected to evacuate up to 500 local Afghans who were employed as translators, fixers and other staff.
Adding in their family members, some 3,500 people are expected. Reintegration costs for them will come on top of the €12.5 billion military cost of the mission, as well as the €425 million Germany has spent in Afghanistan on humanitarian aid.
Some local staff who worked for the Germans, such as Samim Jabary, the face of Bundeswehr information videos for the local population, say their applications for visas have been refused as they were employees of civilian subcontractors.
“I have repeatedly insulted the Taliban in the worst possible terms,” he told Der Spiegel magazine. “If the Taliban get me, they will immediately kill me.”
For Lt André Wüstner, head of the Bundeswehr representation association, Berlin “pretty much did everything wrong” on their return. The political debate now over what kind of ceremony should be held, he said, “was a kind of theatre where you can only shake your head”.