wrong. But when it comes to Afghanistan, the consequences of not doing so could
be high. It is time for the West to cut its losses and withdraw.
The most difficult thing to do in politics is to change course — admitting that
everything that was right yesterday is wrong today. It is a particularly
challenging maneuver when the decision is between war and peace. Winston
Churchill, stubborn as he was, never could admit that he had made a mistake in
1915 when, as first lord of the Admiralty, his strategic error helped lead to
the bitter defeat of the Entente troops at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at
Gallipoli. Similarly, it took 30 years for former US Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara to acknowledge that the Vietnam War had been a mistake.
The German government, NATO and the West shouldn't wait that long. Together they should realize — and admit — that the war in Afghanistan is not going to end
in success. We have failed. The war has been lost. The country that we leave
behind will not be pacified. It is possible that we could have been successful
had we understood earlier how the country works. But now, we are no longer a
part of the solution — increasingly, we have become part of the problem. It is
best just to leave now, before additional blood is spilled. The secret war logs
given by WikiLeaks to SPIEGEL confirm as much.
Led by the US, NATO and other Western allies have been trying to pacify
Afghanistan for almost 10 years — with little success. War aims have changed
frequently. None of them, however, has been achieved. The intervals between the
large-scale Afghanistan conferences, from Berlin to Paris, London to Kabul, have
become ever shorter, but the list of problems has only grown. The country
remains a potential breeding ground for terrorism as it was prior to the Sept.
11, 2001 attacks in the US. And little that the West has imported to Afghanistan
since then has put down such deep roots that it would survive a pullout for
long. Girls' schools, wells and newly paved roads are pleasant side effects of
the NATO mission in Afghanistan. As a justification, however, they are not
Clearer from a Distance
"Nothing is good in Afghanistan," said Margot Kässmann, then-head of the
Protestant Church of Germany, a few months ago. The angry response from German
political leaders was quick and biting — and showed that she had touched a
nerve. Her comments were criticized, with some justification, for having shown a
lack of detailed knowledge of NATO's mission in Afghanistan. But sometimes
things are clearer from a distance.
Afghanistan is a nightmare, a graveyard of empires. The British came first,
followed by the Soviets; now NATO and the UN are losing their innocence on the
battlefields of Afghanistan. In total, the US, its allies and private security
firms have almost 200,000 soldiers stationed in the country, roughly equal to
the number the Soviets stationed there in the 1980s. It wasn't enough then, and
it won't be enough now. And increasing that number would be militarily difficult
and politically impossible. The West has bitten off more than it can chew.
When sending troops abroad, governments take out a kind of loan from the
populace — a loan of trust. This is particularly true in Germany. Should
payments not be made on that loan, the electorate eventually calls it in
completely. And without the support of the populace, overseas missions become
increasingly difficult. This point has been reached already in Berlin and in a
number of NATO capitals.
Losing with Dignity
It is difficult to ignore the political parallels to the Vietnam War. The
Western alliance has reached the point where calls for patience and for
continued support have become increasingly shrill, even desperate. Politicians'
words are sounding increasingly hollow. In a recent government statement,
Chancellor Angela Merkel was so uninspired that she resorted to borrowing former
Defense Minister Peter Struck's famous formulation that Germany's security is
being "defended in the Hindu Kush."
Before the Afghanistan mission's aim becomes only that of saving face, we should
withdraw. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demanded in 1971 that his
country should lose the Asian war with dignity. To achieve that aim, the US
stayed in Vietnam for two more years — years which resulted in the deaths of
additional hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
One can hear similar expressions of desperation these days. Only recently,
German Development Minister Dirk Niebel said on television that Germany has to
stay in Afghanistan. Berlin owes it to those who have lost their lives, he said.
One wonders how much longer we will have to listen to such justifications.