So this week, after 13 years, Germany’s war in Afghanistan was officially over. We’re leaving, mainly because everyone else is. It cost 55 German soldiers’ lives and €8.7 billion, and no one seems to be able to tell whether it was worth it or not. And 2014 was the most violent in Afghanistan since the war began, but at the same time more girls are going to school.
But was that why we did it? The Afghanistan war has lasted so long that over the years, German politicians have offered and quietly dropped various answers to the question: why? At first, in the aftermath of 9/11, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said the point was to show “unconditional solidarity” with the US and NATO. But a year later that solidarity didn’t extend to fighting in Iraq. Schröder, like President Obama, was apparently convinced that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was a good war – because the emphasis was on rebuilding and bringing democracy and western freedoms to the Taliban-oppressed Afghans. Then Defence Minister Peter Struck admitted that, actually, the Bundeswehr was mainly in Afghanistan to protect German security. But it took his successor Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to admit in 2009 – seven years in – that what Germany was actually doing in Afghanistan was fighting a war. Meanwhile, President Horst Köhler caused an uproar and was eventually forced to resign because he suggested that the German army was also in Afghanistan to protect and promote Germany’s economic interests.
No wonder Germans are confused now: according to a new Spiegel survey, 62 percent of Germans are in favour generally of sending the Bundeswehr abroad to fight “international terrorism,” but only 27 percent of them agree with Struck’s claim that “Germany’s security is also being defended at the Hindu Kush.” In other words, most Germans don’t think that’s where the terrorists are. Given the profusion of different reasons for being in Afghanistan, it’s also no wonder that 57 percent think that the 13 years were not worth the lives and money spent on it.
The Afghanistan adventure was always a lot more popular among politicians – all of Germany’s major parties (except for die Linke) consistently voted in favour of extending the mission. But, realizing it was unpopular, none of them defended or promoted the war with any kind of enthusiasm – least of all Merkel, who fudged and muddled through as usual. Germany is now bailing out for the same reason it went in – because everyone else is. As reasons go, that’ll have to do.