Leaves: „The German Shame of Kabul“

This text appeared in the Blättern für deutsche und Internationale Politik (November 2021) and you can also find it at this link.

Just one day before the fall of Kabul, then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that he would "fight to the death."[1] But when the Taliban took power in the Afghan capital on August 15 - much earlier than expected - Ghani took flight. He was able to fly to Tajikistan and from there travel to the United Arab Emirates, where he was quickly and unbureaucratically granted political asylum. Ashraf Ghani thus belongs to a small class of privileged Afghans with enough money and connections to quickly reach safety. Most people in Afghanistan, however, do not enjoy these privileges. Therefore, after the Taliban took power, thousands tried to get to Kabul airport. There they hoped to catch an evacuation plane that would fly them out of the country. Their fear of the new rulers was so great that people even clung to planes taking off. Some of them fell to their deaths in this desperate attempt to escape.

In those days, Kabul airport was transformed into a place of hope and terror: while tens of thousands of people could just about be evacuated - mainly to the U.S. - 180 people lost their lives in a bomb attack by the terrorist militia "Islamic State" on August 26. When it became clear in mid-August that Afghanistan would soon fall completely to the Taliban, I decided with a few others not to simply stand idly by. I visited Afghanistan in 2016 as a photographer and met many people there, some of whom are now at risk. As an MEP, I am part of the Delegation for Relations with Afghanistan and also work in my committees on issues related to the country, but in this role you cannot directly help evacuate people. Therefore, we have chosen a civil society path: Together with fellow campaigners from sea rescue and journalism, we founded the "Kabul Airlift" and have since been working to evacuate people from Afghanistan.

Already during a first rescue operation in the night from August 25 to 26 with a chartered airplane, we were able to rescue 18 people from Kabul airport - and this despite the fact that parts of the German Foreign Office wanted to prevent the success of our mission. In the meantime, the 18 Afghan local staff members of the Portuguese were to leave the plane again - on German instructions. The responsible employee of the Foreign Office in Kabul stood right next to the crew at the airport, but refused to talk to them. After an hour-long thriller, we managed to fly the people seeking protection out after all.[2] To date, we have not received any comprehensible justification from the German Foreign Office for the obstruction of our mission. This article is from the November 2021 issue. Click here to go to that issue's table of contents.

After the federal government called off the evacuation in Kabul on August 26, we were able to move another 189 people to and from the airport to safety.[3] Since then, we have repeatedly managed to evacuate people seeking protection, as well as German citizens, from the country; there are now more than 400 people.[4]

Protracted proceedings

In the "Kabul Airlift" we experience daily how the rescue of people is prevented because procedures are delayed for bureaucratic reasons or nobody wants to be responsible. This has fatal consequences: Several people on German evacuation lists have already been executed by the Taliban.[5] Although German authorities publicly claimed that all these people should be flown out, their rescue was practically prevented: Lists were not forwarded, buses could not be paid, flight capacities were not extended and the coordination of different authorities went so badly that we had to carry information from one ministry to another in numerous conversations.

Instead of looking for workable technical solutions, dozens of officials spent weeks copying data from e-mails into Excel spreadsheets, which in the end no one could really see through. And the transport of the 189 people mentioned above, whom we wanted to bring to Kabul airport, was only successful after the Bundeswehr had already left.

Such evacuations with the "Kabul Airlift" show that the German government could have saved many more people with the appropriate political will. But instead, it decided to cancel the evacuation. How this procrastination by German authorities works can also be seen in family reunification: according to research by the magazine "Panorama" and information from the German Foreign Office, 4,000 people from Afghanistan have been on the waiting list for an appointment for up to two years in order to even be able to submit the required documents.[6] Because of these delaying tactics, many people have now come under Taliban rule, even though they have the right to family reunification in Germany. Meanwhile, downright absurd cases also land in our mailboxes: For example, a 10-year-old boy traveling alone in Herat, Afghanistan, received the message that he could now be evacuated to Germany. However, he would have to go to the German embassy in neighboring Pakistan. However, no one told him that the borders were closed and that he could not get there.

All this cannot simply be explained by the sudden advance of the Taliban - even if that is exactly what the German government and the Federal Foreign Office claim. According to them, the Islamists' triumphant advance had taken them completely by surprise. Only with the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy on August 15 do the responsible authorities claim to have noticed that they, too, now had to evacuate quickly because they could not hold the specially secured area of the Afghan capital, the Green Zone, without U.S. support. However, this claim is contradicted by a report in "Der Spiegel," according to which the German ambassador to the United States, Emily Haber, had warned the German government as early as nine days before the Taliban invaded Kabul that the capital would fall quickly. The ambassador had asked the Foreign Office to immediately draw up contingency plans for the embassy in Afghanistan.[7]

So the German Foreign Office was informed, but did nothing for days to ensure a faster evacuation of embassy staff, German nationals, local Afghan forces, and other people who were entitled to help. Many people could still have been taken out of the country on charter flights after the Ambassador's warning. But nothing happened.

The local forces left alone

However, it was not only the Foreign Ministry that failed. Rather, domestic political considerations also played a major role in all these decisions. Considerable responsibility also rests on the shoulders of Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. As early as June, the Conference of Interior Ministers had called on him to initiate the rapid admission of local forces. But as internal documents obtained by the "Tagesspiegel" show, Seehofer has blocked and tried to delay the rescue of people with bureaucratic hurdles.[8]

One method of keeping the number of people to be evacuated from Afghanistan as low as possible was to make the definition of local forces so narrow that it now includes very few people. According to the German Foreign Office, the term local staff now includes "former employees of the German Foreign Office (Embassy Kabul and Consulate General Mazar-i Sharif), the German Armed Forces, the German Federal Police, or development cooperation agencies, provided the employment relationship did not end before 2013."[9] Before the conference of interior ministers in Rust, Baden, in June 2021, the definition was even limited to those people whose contracts had not ended before 2019. But if the Taliban hunt people down because they have cooperated with their enemies, then the date on which they were employed is not a criterion for them. The Taliban would not think of setting a cut-off date of December 31, 2012, and sparing all those who worked for the Bundeswehr before that. The mission lasted twenty years, so all the people who worked for the Germans during that period should also be recognized as local forces.

For the Taliban, it is also irrelevant whether the people were directly employed by their enemy or provided their services through a third-party provider. However, as "Der Spiegel" extensively researched, employees of the German Armed Forces in Afghanistan were systematically pushed into subcontractors so that they would not later be accepted in Germany.[10] They were deliberately "outsourced" so that the German state would not have to take responsibility for their lives and safety.

The fact that the German authorities are primarily concerned with limiting the number of people authorized to evacuate, and less with the safety of the local forces, is also evident from the many e-mails that have reached me since the fall of Kabul. Hundreds of people are contacting me who have worked for the Bundeswehr but are failing the local forces procedure. Among them are the air traffic controllers from Mazar-e-Sharif, who had contracts with the Bundeswehr since 2012. They helped organize the withdrawal of the German soldiers. But when the last plane took off, they were simply left behind. In the meantime, Bundeswehr soldiers are also campaigning for these people to be evacuated to Germany, but since they were only employed on contracts for work, their applications have been rejected so far.

However, the German government not only obstructed the admission of people, but also tried to stick to its deportation practice as long as possible. As early as July 12, I had sent an open letter to Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in my capacity as a Member of the European Parliament, requesting that the report of the Federal Foreign Office on the situation in Afghanistan relevant to asylum and deportation be adapted to the new findings and developments.[11] This was because the report did not reflect the current situation, which was already rapidly deteriorating at the time, but served primarily to enable people to continue to be deported from Germany to Afghanistan. At that time, the Taliban had already taken control of large parts of the country. It had long been foreseeable that they would invade Kabul in the near future.

Only shortly before, it had become known that an Afghan deported from Germany in February had already been killed by a hand grenade on June 21.[12] The Afghan government at the time also asked that deportations be suspended for the time being due to the security situation.[13] Nevertheless, the German government continued to carry out collective deportations to Afghanistan. It was not until August 11, four days before the fall of Kabul, that the Federal Ministry of the Interior suspended deportations to Afghanistan.[14]

Just the week before, on August 5, Seehofer, together with the responsible ministers from Austria, Denmark, Greece, Belgium and the minister from the Netherlands, had demanded in a letter to the Vice President of the EU Commission, Margaritis Schinas, and the responsible EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, that the deportations to Afghanistan be continued.[15] - against the pleas of the Afghan government at the time. But the minister and the ministers urged in their letter to ignore the appeal from Kabul. This shows that they were not concerned with the rights and the possible endangerment of people. Nor were they concerned with a sober look at the reality in the countries of origin or that people are threatened because they have cooperated with European troops. No, it was and is solely about justifying deportations and a restrictive refugee policy, even if this means closing one's eyes to reality.

The Lessons from the German Disgrace in Kabul

Election tactics also played a role in all of this: Kabul fell just over a month before the Bundestag elections on September 26. As early as June 23, the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag had submitted a motion to admit local Afghan forces. However, the CDU/CSU and SPD parliamentary groups, together with the AfD, rejected the motion.[16] It is quite common for the government groups to reject opposition motions. Nevertheless, they are free to introduce their own motions on the same subject. But this did not happen in this case. The behavior of the coalition partners can also be explained by the fact that they did not want to allow a larger number of Afghan beneficiaries of protection to come to Germany shortly before the election.

Already on the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, the CDU member of parliament and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Roderich Kiesewetter tweeted though: "It was a big and serious mistake to reject the Greens' motion - on principle. Period."[17] But in large parts of the CDU/CSU and SPD, there was a broad consensus to keep migration and flight out of the election campaign, because they feared that these topics could benefit the radical right-wing AfD. The necessary and rapid evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan was not a topic that they wanted to aggressively put on the agenda. But this strategy did not work. The images from Kabul airport dominated the news broadcasts shortly before the election. And anyone who does not want to manage a major challenge like flight and migration in the best possible way for years, but tries to keep the issue out of the political debate, will help neither the people nor democracy. The success of the right-wing radicals is not related to taking in people seeking protection, but is explained by the fact that the other parties are failing to meet concrete challenges.

It is shameful for the German government that an ad hoc civil society initiative like the "Kabul Airlift" was able to evacuate people from Kabul just two weeks after its founding, while the Bundeswehr had already been withdrawn. All the more true now: Evacuations from Afghanistan must continue. There are still many thousands of people living in Afghanistan who are at risk because of their relations or cooperation with the Germans. If their rescue fails due to insufficient personnel capacities in the Federal Government, the ministries and the responsible offices, these capacities must be increased in order to then evacuate endangered persons consistently and as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lists for those authorized to evacuate must be reopened. And we need appropriate reception programs in Germany and the EU respectively, under which people can be resettled so that they do not have to place themselves in the hands of smugglers and embark on a life-threatening journey to Europe. The relevant procedures must be made easier and less bureaucratic.

Of course, we must not forget that the great challenges for Afghan society will not be solved by fleeing to Europe. But tens of thousands who have spent decades working for us, for human and women's rights, must now be able to leave the country. They deserve that we make this possible for them.

We cannot make up for the German disgrace of Kabul during the evacuation. But we can at least show that we have learned from it and are now trying to do better.

[1] Friederike Böge, Ein Hubschrauber voller Geld [A Helicopter Full of Money], in: "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," 24.8.2021.

[2] Wolfgang Bauer, 170 seats, 170 lives, www.zeit.de, 28.8.2021.

[3] Muriel Kalisch, "Let's Rent a Plane." www.spiegel.de, 5.9.2021.

[4] Christine Keck, "We Get Afghans Out Every Week." www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de, 8.10.2021; Private initiative evacuates eleven Germans from Kabul - nine of them are minors, www.rnd.de, 6.10.2021.

[5] Joana Rettig, At least Six People Executed on German Evacuation Lists in Afghanistan, www.politik.watson.de, 9.9.2021.

[6] Armin Ghassim and Jonas Schreijäg, Flüchtlinge: Behörden verschleppen Familiennachzug, www.tagesschau.de, 30.9.2021.

[7] Matthias Gebauer and Christoph Schult, Secret Cable Report Warned Early of Collapse in Kabul, in "Der Spiegel," Sept. 6, 2021.

[8] Georg Ismar, The Merkel Government's Kabul Crisis and the Image that Will Remain, www.tagesspiegel.de, 18.8.2021.

[9] Questions and answers: assistance in leaving Afghanistan, www.auswaertiges-amt.de, 11.10.2021.

[10] Matthias Gebauer, Christoph Reuter, and Fidelius Schmid, How the Bundeswehr Systematically Outsourced its Local Forces, www.spiegel.de, 25.6.2021.

[11] Erik Marquardt, Open Letter to Heiko Maas on Deportations to Afghanistan, www.erik-marquardt.eu, 15.7.2021.

[12] Kaija Kutter, Sent to Death, www.taz.de, 6.7.2021.

[13] Afghanistan calls for halt to deportations from Europe, www.zeit.de, 10.7.2021.

[14] Seehofer: Deportations currently too dangerous, www.zdf.de, 11.8.2021.

[15] Returns to Afghanistan - Letter to EU Commission, www.fragdenstaat.de, 5.8.2021.

[16] Request to host local Afghan forces denied, www.bundestag.de, 6/23/2021; Kersten Knipp, Criticism of High Hurdles for Admission of Afghan Local Forces, www.dw.de, 27.6.2021.

[17] www.twitter.com/rkiesewetter, 8/15/2021. Topics: Migration, War and peace, Human Rights From: "Leaves" 11/2021, S. 77-82