When the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 took place in the United States, the world held its breath—but not for long. A meeting of the UN Security Council was held the very next day, where a resolution was passed granting the US government the right to self-defence and the Council declared its willingness “to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001”. On the same day, the NATO Council proclaimed its support, and invoked its collective defence clause for the first time in its history. All of a sudden war was afoot, although whom it was being waged against was unclear. What exactly was to be understood by “all necessary steps” would be defined later, for the most part by the George W. Bush-led US government.
Julia Wiedemann works in the International Politics Department at the national headquarters of Die Linke in Berlin. Her regional focus is West Asia and North Africa.
It was rapidly established that the radical Islamic network Al-Qaida, headed by Osama bin Laden, was behind the attacks and that it had found refuge in Afghanistan, then under the control of the Taliban. On 14 September, the US Congress passed a resolution authorizing the deployment of military troops to fight terrorism, which granted the US president far-reaching powers and subsequently led to multiple military interventions.
The 2001 Debate on Afghanistan in the Bundestag
When the German Bundestag (federal parliament) met on 19 September to debate the war on terrorism, the shock over the attacks was palpable. However, an appeal was also made for the “free world” to show solidarity. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) saw the attacks in New York and Washington as a “threat to world peace” and a “declaration of war on civilization”. In his speech, defence minister Rudolf Scharping (SPD) recalled the words of the US president, for whom the terrorist attacks on the USA represented “an attack on us all”.
At that stage, the question of what was to come and what would be expected of Germany was still open. By and large, however, there was agreement that Germany should stand by the US in solidarity—in terms of military support if necessary and “without reservation”, as Friedrich Merz, chair of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) parliamentary group, put it during his contribution to the debate. However, the chair of the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group in the Bundestag Kerstin Müller expressed reservations, saying that international law had nothing to do with revenge, and that prudence and consideration were now necessary.
Only one party in the Bundestag spoke out against this course of action right from the beginning: the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), one of the two founding parties of the Left Party (Die Linke). As stressed during the debate by Roland Claus, the then-chair of the PDS parliamentary group in the Bundestag: “If global terror leads to global war, then terror, not civilization, has won out.”
On 7 October, a few days later, the US government put its money where its mouth was by commencing attacks on Afghanistan. Kabul was liberated from the Taliban on 14 November in the wake of “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF). At its 16 November session, the Bundestag overwhelmingly voted to participate under the NATO framework as an ally in this operation.
The fall of the Taliban cleared the path to a new political order. Afghan representatives met with representatives of the international community at a conference in Bonn, where on 5 December an agreement was passed on the installation of a transitional government under the leadership of Hamid Karzai and on the temporary stationing of international troops under UN command to protect this government. It was in this context that on 22 December the German federal government tabled a further motion for the German armed forces to support the international ISAF mandate. This motion was passed by a significant parliamentary majority.
The PDS were the only party to vote against both deployments of German troops. Roland Claus made the shrewd observation that this was an unpredictable military adventure, warning parliament: “You are opting in without having an option to get out.” It was precisely this point that turned out to be Achilles’ heel of military deployment in Afghanistan.
November 2001 Motion by the PDS Group
In November, the PDS tabled its own motion for combating terrorism and ending the war in Afghanistan in which concerns were raised that would unfortunately later be proven right. One point of criticism was that the war leadership was aiming for the support of the Northern Alliance. As stated in the motion: “This alliance carries a high level of responsibility for oppressing and depriving women of their rights, and for murder, terrorism, and drugs and arms trading in Afghanistan”.
In his recently published book, Der längste Krieg, Emran Feroz provides a haunting description of the massacres committed by the leaders of the Northern Alliance during the civil war as well as in the wake of US invasions, how they enriched themselves with aid money—and in no way contributed to stabilizing the country.
Twenty years of war in Afghanistan resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Particularly well-remembered in Germany is an aerial attack in the Kunduz region in which more than 100 civilians lost their lives. With the war resulting in the deaths of innocent people, it elicited “a heightened level of hate and renewed outrage”, as outlined in the PDS motion. In addition to their demand to end the war, the PDS group pointed out that the government’s rationale for fighting terror was setting false priorities and that the funds urgently required for humanitarian aid, development cooperation, and rebuilding the devastated country were overwhelmingly flowing into the military sector. The fiscal balance sheet for 20 years of war in Afghanistan confirms this: at least 12 billion euro were spent on the German armed forces, compared with just 3.5 billion euro spent on development coordination.
In addition to warnings, the motion contained concrete proposals. The PDS endorsed a Chapter 4 UN Blue Helmet deployment and called for a regional peace conference that would include neighbouring countries—in particular Pakistan, India, China, and Russia. The motion also argued for a strengthening of the United Nations and in particular for reinforcing democratic opposition within Afghanistan by involving women’s organizations in the peace process. A joint motion by the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Alliance 90/The Greens, and the PDS was even tabled on the latter point.
The PDS may well have been the only party in the Bundestag that objected to the deployment of German armed forces in Afghanistan, but theirs was not a lone voice. A broad alliance of unions, peace movements, and developmental aid organizations opposed Germany entering the war. But the red-green coalition government of the SPD and the Greens led by Gerhard Schröder, as well as subsequent governments led by Angela Merkel (CDU), turned a deaf ear to these warnings.
“Germany’s Security is Being Defended in the Hindu Kush”
Around this time, a phrase coined by Peter Struck (SPD), who replaced Rudolf Scharping in 2002 as defence minister, was frequently being quoted. “Germany’s security is being defended in the Hindu Kush”, Struck stated in December 2002, as the federal government moved to extend the mandate for military deployment for a second time. Again, only the PDS opposed this motion, as well as all other subsequent extensions of the mandate. Later it was Die Linke, the party formed by the merger of the PDS and Labour and Social Justice—The Electoral Alternative (WASG), that continued to oppose the extension of this mandate in the Bundestag, and took various forms of action to make the consequences of deployment visible on both the public and political level.
In the following years, the arguments made by supporters of the war changed. Increasingly, they pointed to civil successes that had to be safeguarded, and to the support for Afghan security forces needed to reinforce regional stability. The many setbacks—the dead civilians and soldiers, the skirmishes with the Taliban and warlords that kept flaring up, the sluggish economic development, the drugs trade, and the rampant corruption within the government—did not lead to the deployment of the armed forces being called into question. It was not until the sudden dissolution of the Afghan army, which had been equipped with modern weapons costing billions of euros and trained over decades, and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban of the presidential palace, that the West recognized how misguided its assessment of military deployment in Afghanistan had been for so many years.
Die Linke and before them the PDS have been speaking out against military deployment in Afghanistan for over twenty years. In retrospect, it is easy to say that we could see this failure coming. However, politics is not about being right. What is much more important now is to logically examine why the federal government adhered for so long to a military strategy that was doomed to fail from the very beginning. Only through an honest reappraisal can a paradigm shift in German foreign policy be achieved. As part of this process, Die Linke must also ask itself why its valid arguments did not receive more support through the years, and why, aside from some surveys, it was not possible to win majority support from the public for its “No to War” stance.
The important thing now is to support those fleeing from the Taliban. In this respect, too, Die Linke was the first party to act, by tabling a motion in June regarding the protection of locally hired employees of the German armed forces in Afghanistan.
The parliamentary group also took its voting behaviour on the evacuation of the German armed forces very seriously; after all, lives were at stake. There was majority agreement within the group that a government motion did not demonstrate the will to aid as many people as possible (i.e. not only German citizens and local employees of the German armed forces), which was starkly confirmed by the evacuation measures at Kabul airport. In addition, the text of the mandate left open the possibility of military means, meaning violence against civilians could not be ruled out. Under these circumstances, Die Linke could not give its unconditional support and a majority agreed that the group would abstain from the vote.
It is therefore highly cynical that the very people who were responsible for military deployment and all of its consequences over the past twenty years, who have played for time right up until the last minute, are now pointing the finger at the very party that bears no responsibility for this mess. One thing is certain: only when German politics is able to draw the right conclusions from this failed intervention will we be able to avoid this kind of disaster in future.