Tashkent / Dushanbe (dpa) – Nothing remains of the biggest evacuation mission in Bundeswehr history when Foreign Minister Heiko Maas lands in Tashkent on Monday evening.
The central pillar of the airlift, the hub between Afghan Kabul and Germany, through which more than 5,000 people were put to the shelter of the Taliban Islamist militants, was held for eleven days at the airport of the Uzbek capital. A few hours before the arrival of the minister, A400M transport planes bring home the remains of the operation.
The military evacuation is complete. Diplomacy is now taking over. The foreign minister’s visit to Tashkent marks the transition from phase 1 to phase 2 of the relief operation for those seeking to protect themselves from the new rulers in Kabul. And for which Germany bears a special responsibility: former Afghan employees of the Bundeswehr and federal ministries, as well as particularly at-risk Afghans, such as human rights activists and women’s rights activists. In total, this concerns more than 40,000 people.
In order to launch phase 2 of the relief operation, Maas now travels for four days to five countries that are needed to bring these people to Germany: Turkey, which operates the Kabul airport in Afghanistan after the armed forces withdrew. Americans, with the Taliban should operate. Neighboring countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, which are supposed to be the stopover for those departing by land. And Qatar, the country with what is probably the best link with the Taliban, that we can no longer get around.
“Putting a face on failure”
This is perhaps the most important trip in the three and a half years that Maas makes now at the Federal Foreign Office. This is so important because this time it is not about compromises of abstract formulas or laboriously negotiated statements of intent, as is so often the case in diplomacy. More precisely, it is about the fate of tens of thousands of people whom Germany has promised over the past 20 years not to disappoint them. But this is just something else: the political fate of Heiko Maas himself.
For the errors of judgment of the entire federal government when it comes to Afghanistan, it must have taken the most hits by far. He had “given a face to failure”, wrote the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. Calls for resignations came mainly from the second row. Along with CSU President Markus Söder, however, a high-profile coalition partner said Maas would no longer be allowed to become a minister after the elections. Even from its own party, the Saar receives only half-hearted support. Vice-Chancellor and candidate for Chancellor Olaf Scholz avoids standing clearly behind him.
There are several reasons why Maas is pretty much alone in the blaze, although he shares responsibility for the disaster in Afghanistan with other members of the cabinet: There was already a lot of criticism of his administration, which makes him an easy target. His ministry is officially responsible for assessing the situation in Afghanistan. And there are also three of the five cabinet members in charge of Afghanistan who are already clear that they will not be in the next government: Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU ) and Minister of Development Aid Gerd Müller (CSU).
Only Maas and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU) remain, who as commander-in-chief of the Bundeswehr evacuation operation has just managed to appear in a somewhat positive light again.
The risks are great
So there is a lot at stake for Maas, politically maybe even everything. He has set the bar very high for his diplomatic relief operation. They will continue “until everyone for whom we are responsible in Afghanistan is safe,” he said.
However, the risks are great. Germany is no longer present in Afghanistan. Along with the soldiers of the Bundeswehr, all diplomats also withdrew from the country in crisis. The relief effort must therefore be organized from the outside. From the Berlin crisis response center, but also from the embassies of neighboring countries, of which Maas is now increasing its staff.
There are two ways to get out of Afghanistan. The previous one via Kabul airport is expected to resume civilian operations after the withdrawal of the US armed forces. And the overland route to one of the six neighboring countries, three of which Maas visited during his trip: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
Either way, however, you have to rely on the goodwill of the Taliban. They control the traffic routes to the borders with checkpoints. They will also have control of the airport even if they allow international aid from Turkey or Qatar. Uzbekistan also announced that it was keeping its border post with Afghanistan “completely closed”. Afghan asylum seekers would not be accepted definitively, it was announced Monday in the former Soviet republic.
Take advantage of the money
The negotiating position vis-à-vis the Islamists is nevertheless qualified as somewhat promising. Mainly because there is only one lever: money. The German government initially pledged 430 million euros in aid to Afghanistan this year. Most of them are now on hold. Maas insists that even Islamist leaders have no interest in starving their people.
German negotiator Markus Potzel, who has been talking for days with the Taliban’s political bureau in Qatar, has received positive signals of safe conduct following the American withdrawal. If that works, it will still be a matter of avoiding dangerous chaos like last week at Kabul airport. Maas tries to counter a leak at border crossings by making it clear that not everyone can hope for a ticket to Germany. In Tashkent, he insists that the federal government will only support those who have a firm acceptance of admission when they leave the country. “We are only affected by this group of people.”
“GERMANY’S COMMITMENT DOESN’T STOP”
Maas can only avoid Afghanistan himself on his journey. His last visit not so long ago. In April, he was the last member of the government to visit German soldiers at Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif and held talks in Kabul with President Ashraf Ghani, who has since fled. “Germany remains a reliable partner alongside the Afghan people,” he said immediately after his arrival. “Although the military operation is coming to an end, we are continuing our engagement at all other levels.”
What Maas said in Berlin on Sunday before the start of his four-day mission in Afghanistan was very similar: “I am going to the region today to clarify: Germany’s engagement does not end with the completion of the military evacuation mission. Hopefully the engagement will be more successful this time around.