It was the foreign and security policy shock before the really big shock in Ukraine that only a few saw coming at the time: When the Taliban captured Kabul within hours in mid-August 2021, a quickly improvised, sometimes completely chaotic withdrawal of Western nations and their helpers began the Afghan capital. The fact that the economically far superior West had to capitulate to the radical Islamic, backward Taliban from one day to the next reminded observers of the defeat of the USA in the Vietnam War and was interpreted by many as a portent of global politics.
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24 suddenly pushed the tragedy in the Hindu Kush into the background. Since then, the headlines have no longer been dominated by news about millions of hungry Afghans or the fate of German local forces who have not yet been evacuated, but rather by the status of arms deliveries to Ukraine and the course of the front in the Donbass.
But this Thursday evening, Afghanistan is returning to German politics. Because the Bundestag wants to set up a committee of inquiry (U-Committee) on the subject, and a day later a committee of inquiry. In the negotiations for the traffic light coalition, the former opposition parties Greens and FDP had pushed for Parliament’s strongest instrument, the U-Committee, while the SPD had spoken out in favor of an Afghanistan commission of inquiry even before the federal elections. After a delay caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine, a promise made in the coalition agreement is now being fulfilled.
Ten months ago, the republic was spellbound by the television images of the initially completely uncontrolled run on the airport in Kabul by completely desperate Afghans who wanted to leave the country and wanted to escape revenge by the Taliban. Inside, soldiers of the US Marines secured the departure of the last western machines behind concrete walls. The Bundeswehr also sent its own evacuation mission to support the Federal Foreign Office in its efforts to bring Germans, nationals of other nations and local workers to safety. 5,347 people from at least 45 nations were flown out in transport aircraft.
However, the question of political responsibility for the disaster quickly arose last year. The Greens accused the then Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) of failure and called on him to resign. The social democrat in the top floor of the Foreign Office was aware of how deep a mess he was in. He himself offered the then Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz (also SPD) his resignation, as he later explained. But he refused.
Two Social Democrats, who were only elected to the Bundestag in the fall, will head the new committees because, according to the parliamentary rules, it is the SPD parliamentary group’s turn: Ralf Stegner, long leader of the state and parliamentary group in Schleswig-Holstein, will chair the U-committee; Michael Müller, Governing Mayor in Berlin until 2021, the Commission of Inquiry. Both bodies have different goals.
The commission of inquiry “Lessons from Afghanistan for Germany’s future networked engagement”, in which scientists also work, is primarily concerned with improving the structure of German foreign and security policy.
On the other hand, the U-Committee should clarify, among other things, why the evacuation from Afghanistan was so hasty. “The German Bundestag has a duty to ensure transparent clarification,” says the designated chairman, Stegner.
The committee wants to research what the federal government, the armed forces, the intelligence services and the federal police decided and did before, during and shortly after the departure of the last German soldiers and diplomats – including who was responsible for individual decisions at the time. In concrete terms, the aim is to find out by examining documents and questioning witnesses who made which decisions and when, for example to clear the embassy or to protect local Bundeswehr employees.
In order to depict as many perspectives as possible, it is also being considered to interview former Afghan employees of German institutions, i.e. local employees. At the beginning of June, according to the federal government, almost 12,000 Afghans who had been accepted from Germany were still waiting to be evacuated.
In addition to the coalition factions, the CDU and CSU are also behind the U-Committee and the Commission of Inquiry. Union faction vice Johann Wadephul (CDU) said that the processes had to be processed critically and without considering people, offices and party affiliations. “We owe that in particular to the people we sent into this mission there.”
The committee is examining a period beginning on February 29, 2020. On this day, the US government signed the Doha Agreement with the Taliban. In return for the withdrawal of US troops, the Islamists undertook, among other things, to hold peace talks with the Afghan government and to participate in an “inclusive” government. But they continued to prepare for the overthrow and were successful.
The investigation is scheduled to end on September 30, 2021 – a month after the last US soldiers left Kabul. According to information from coalition circles, the Union wanted to extend the period to the present day, for example to be able to quote Chancellor Scholz or Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) on the witness stand. The traffic light majority blocked that.
After almost 20 years, the Bundeswehr withdrew from the country weeks before the fall of Kabul, namely at the end of June 2021. 59 German soldiers lost their lives there, 35 of them were killed by outsiders. The deployment of the Bundeswehr cost a total of around 12 billion euros. This does not include expenditure for development cooperation.
Subcommittees are often also political instruments of struggle to prove mistakes in office politicians that can endanger their careers. In this case there is a special feature: Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), Heiko Maas (Foreign Ministry), Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (defense), Horst Seehofer (interior) and Gerd Müller (development) have long since lost their posts.
The designated chairman of the Greens in the committee, Robin Wagener, does not feel discouraged by this: “The fact that all the ministers responsible at the time are no longer in office can possibly be an advantage,” he says: “They no longer have to fear calls for their resignation and can not therefore contribute to the clarification with less political pressure.”