Germany and Afghanistan: Time to ditch bad governments, not good governance

After Afghanistan, countries such as Germany should reconsider their presence in Mali, unless the ruling class commits to good governance and democratic principles

KABUL, May 13, 2021 Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani inspects the guard of honor as he attends Eid al-Fitr prayers at Presidential Palace
Image by picture alliance / Xinhua News Agency | Afghan President Palace

The Afghanistan operation was a textbook mission: we applied a comprehensive approach to crisis management. We knew the challenges we faced could not be met with military means alone. We therefore spent billions of euros on humanitarian and development aid. We offered training to the Afghan administration, the military, and the police. We promoted Afghanistan’s economy, and organised business trips to strengthen trade and investment.

But, in a matter of weeks, it all fell apart.

What lessons should the international community, including the new German government taking office this autumn, draw from the Afghan catastrophe?

After all that went wrong at the end, it may feel logical to want to cease all foreign engagement. But this is unrealistic: Germany has to continue to assume responsibility for crisis management. If we do not, who else will? German interests – the future of millions of jobs; of the German economy, which is heavily dependent on trade and open markets; the promotion of a rules-based international order, including the protection of human rights and the prevention of massive flows of refugees and migrants – all these things call for a continuation of our foreign engagement, of our efforts to resolve conflicts and strengthen countries worldwide, and to promote adherence to international law and to good governance.

If a host government does not play ball, in future, German leaders and their allies should think twice about entering into massive engagements

Germany cannot go it alone. We need to work with our partners – France first of all – and within the frameworks of the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the OSCE, and together with the African Union and other regional organisations. And it remains in our interest to keep the United States on board, even though its governments will focus on national challenges, of which there are many. 

Despite what has happened, the comprehensive approach to crisis management must remain: namely, being ready to use political, military, and economic and development approaches. That said, Germany could better organise the tools at its disposal, by merging its ministries of foreign affairs and economic cooperation.

And this is what went wrong in Afghanistan and where we should adapt: the governments and populations we support need to assume ownership and responsibility for the well-being of their country. We need to apply conditionality much more than we have done in the past – not to humanitarian aid, of course, but certainly to everything else. If a host government does not play ball – if it is not ready to build strong independent institutions, promote democracy, fight corruption, and respect national and international law – in future, German leaders and their allies should think twice about entering into massive engagements.

The Mali mission is instructive in this respect – and the international community is still engaged there, even if it has now left Afghanistan. The Malian government ought to be busy implementing the Algiers Agreement and looking after the well-being of its citizens. Instead, it is engaged in ethnic fights and coups d’état. It is corrupt and disrespects international law and human rights. If all this does not change soon, our mission will never succeed. As part of the wider alliance, Germany should in that case scale down its operation and instead strengthen countries such as Niger, where the constitution is respected, peaceful elections and changes of government take place, and the administration is committed to good governance. If Germany opts to stay in Mali for reasons of stability, we should be clear about our objectives and not raise false expectations. We need to coordinate our policy with our French partners, who also have to accept the ownership and conditionality approach. 

The Afghanistan disaster is due to a lack of Afghan ownership, but also, frankly, to awful US brinkmanship. The Americans negotiated the retreat of their troops with the Taliban, keeping the Afghan government out of talks, which had the effect of further delegitimising Kabul. The US administration’s exclusion of US allies from the decision-making process also ran counter to proper diplomacy and the proclaimed intentions of the new team in Washington. It severely undercut the United States’ standing within NATO. The allies knew that the US need to concentrate on its numerous domestic challenges, but Washington nevertheless demonstrated profound disrespect in simply ignoring partners who stood at their side after 9/11. Recall that, when the Obama administration advanced similar plans, it consulted allies – and reconsidered. Maintaining troops overseas costs a lot of money, but it also has a lot of advantages. To cite but a few examples, US presence for decades in Germany, Japan, and South Korea certainly paid off. 

Afghanistan is considered by many to be a defeat of the “West”. I have long argued against the concept of the “West” as reflective of cold-war thinking. Today, we are in a new ball game. There is no longer any “West” against “East”. We are in a global power struggle between those who stand up for the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a rules-based international order, on the one hand. On the other, stand those who systematically violate international law, insist on national sovereignty above all else, abuse human rights, defend impunity, and practise the rule of the strongest.

As a country that draws its lessons from history, Germany has always been a proponent of the rules-based international order. Together with France, we founded the Alliance for Multilateralism. Our ambition now should be to increase the number of countries across all continents who believe in the adherence to international law. Such an alliance will be on the winning side of history. 

Christoph Heusgen is chairman of the Munich Security Conference Foundation Circle (Vorsitzender des Stiftungskreises der Münchener Sicherheitskonferenz), former permanent representative of Germany to the United Nations, and former longtime foreign and security policy advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.