German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has been under fire since the fall of Kabul. In a DER SPIEGEL interview, he speaks about the mistakes that have been made and the dangers of the rescue operation currently under way in Afghanistan.
This interview was conducted on Thursday, August 19, in Berlin
DER SPIEGEL: Minister Maas, have you given any thought in the past few days to resigning?
Maas: Believe it or not, in the past few days, I have only been thinking about a single thing, and that is learning from the mistakes we’ve all made and making sure that we get as many people out of Afghanistan as possible. That is the damned duty of everyone who’s been involved in the developments of recent weeks.
DER SPIEGEL: You have admitted to having incorrectly assessed the situation. This German misjudgment has led to chaos and despair in Afghanistan. In the past, ministers have resigned from office for less.
Maas: No one can seriously dispute that there have been misjudgments. We will have to take a hard look at all of it – from the specific events of the last days and weeks to the political issues that have arisen for us in Germany, but also for the international community. People from Afghanistan who are appealing to us and me want one thing above all: help. And now.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think that you can make up for your mistakes with the evacuation operation?
Maas: I don’t know if it’s possible to completely make up for everything. But the people at Kabul’s airport rightly expect us to take care of them and to get them out of there. I want to help prevent desperate people from also being left behind after our mistakes.
About Heiko Maas
Heiko Maas, born in 1966, is a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and has been German foreign minister since March 2018. Prior to that, Maas had been Justice Minister since 2013. He was head of the state SPD chapter in Saarland until 2018.
DER SPIEGEL: A dangerous evacuation process is currently underway. Will you also remain in your post if rescuers or local hires who worked for the German armed forces or other agencies are injured or killed?
Maas: I have great respect for the servicemen and -women as well as the other Germans – the police officers, diplomats and everyone else. This is a very dangerous operation. But we have done everything in our power to ensure that the evacuation remains tenable – as other nations are also doing.
DER SPIEGEL: What obvious conclusions are you drawing from the Afghanistan disaster?
Maas: Besides the specific questions regarding what happened in the last days, weeks and months, there are big political questions: How do we want to assume international responsibility going forward? For me, one thing is certain: The result of this process must not be that we no longer shoulder any responsibility internationally. The question is: How do we want to do this? And the question will come up: Is NATO a purely defensive alliance? Or is this organization also well suited for undertaking missions like this?
DER SPIEGEL: What kind of missions are you referring to?
Maas: Missions that fall outside NATO’s actual mandate. The reason for the Afghanistan mission was the attacks of September 11, 2001. The NATO mission was supposed to guarantee that no more terrorist attacks would be perpetrated from Afghan soil. But once this was achieved, the mission continued anyway. Suddenly, it was about the future of Afghanistan. Is it our job to keep the peace? To ensure that human rights are respected? Does this also include exporting our form of government? That has certainly failed in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the question still remains whether such missions should not also be possible in the future under NATO leadership.
DER SPIEGEL: You believe NATO should become more political?
Maas: Yes, without a doubt. As you know, this is a debate that we’ve been having for some time. At times, NATO decisions are de facto made in Washington, and NATO in Brussels hardly has any chance to have a say but merely operationalizes them. We need a lot more political discussion before we send our soldiers anywhere. Otherwise, we run the risk of merely always following Washington’s decisions regardless of who is president there.
DER SPIEGEL: Isn’t the more pressing question: How will Germany and Europe finally free themselves from military dependence on the United States?
Maas: Within Europe, we will have to give some thought to strengthening the European pillar in NATO. The reality is that the Americans decide a lot of things and we follow because we are not at all capable of carrying out difficult international missions without the United States. The failure in Afghanistan mustn’t lead to a complete refusal to accept responsibility in foreign and security policy. But Afghanistan mustn’t be allowed to happen again, either.
DER SPIEGEL: Former U.S. President Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban without involving the government in Kabul. Then his successor, Joe Biden, withdrew U.S. troops without waiting for an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Which was the bigger mistake?
Maas: As a matter of fact, the Trump administration excluded not only the Afghan government, but also its international alliance partners from the talks with the Taliban. The result was that the United States – and thereby all other foreign troops, as well – were supposed to leave Afghanistan by early May of this year. After the change in the White House, we joined Britain, France and other NATO allies in asking Joe Biden’s administration what will happen as a result of this decision. And all partners were in favor of linking the withdrawal to conditions rather than sticking to a concrete timetable.
DER SPIEGEL: But the Biden administration ultimately didn’t stick to that agreement.
Maas: No. They chose to define a specific time for withdrawal, with one of the justifications being that war could break out with the Taliban if foreign troops stayed in Afghanistan past May. We had envisioned the U.S. withdrawal differently. But the blame for the development lies with Biden’s predecessor.
DER SPIEGEL: The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, didn’t foresee the rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan. Did the intelligence services fail?
Maas: I don’t see much value in debating who bears the most blame. But the mistakes must be analyzed.
DER SPIEGEL: Did the BND make mistakes?
Maas: The BND obviously assessed the situation incorrectly, as did other services. Of course, they share information and have adopted false assessments from each other. That has to change. Going forward, the findings of other services should be reviewed again and very thoroughly. The decisions taken on the basis of these flawed reports were made in good faith. But the result was incorrect – and had disastrous ramifications. We cannot let this go without consequences regarding how our services operate.
DER SPIEGEL: According to our reporting, your ministry, as well as the federal ministries of the Interior, Defense, and Development, became mired in bureaucratic squabbling over the repatriation of local hires. Is the federal government incapable of acting in crisis situations?
Maas: A lot of things could have certainly been done better on this issue, too. For example, as was proposed by our ministry and the Federal Ministry of Defense, visas could have instead been issued upon arrival in Germany from the get-go. But we were only able to reach an agreement on this within the federal government in the last few days.
DER SPIEGEL: But your ministry also accepted the argument of the Afghan government, according to which it risked collapse of a lot of these local hires were flown out prematurely.
Maas: The Afghan government has had no interest all along in seeing local support staff leave the country. It has refused to issue expedited passports to this group. The Ghani government feared that images of local hires leaving would trigger a mass exodus and a collapse of state structures and the armed forces. When a country’s government confronts us with these kinds of predictions, we can’t simply ignore it.
DER SPIEGEL: The president has fled the country and the armed forces have surrendered without a fight in many places. In hindsight, what do you think about these warnings from the Afghan government about an exodus of local staff?
Maas: The behavior of the Afghan government and armed forces is really hard to believe. Analyzing the real reasons behind it will be important for any future undertaking.
DER SPIEGEL: The Taliban now intend to let the local Afghan hires leave the country. Your envoy, former Ambassador Markus Potzel, is negotiating with the Taliban leadership on this issue in Doha. What price is Germany’s government willing to pay to rescue these people?
Maas: We are holding the talks with the Taliban because there is no alternative. The goal will be to find an arrangement that will allow local hires to get to the airport safely now and be flown out by the Bundeswehr. But they will also be talking about civilian charter flights for other groups of people in the coming weeks. It would be irresponsible not to talk about this as well with the Taliban.
DER SPIEGEL: Does this mean that Germany might give money to the Taliban?
Maas: This isn’t about paying ransom. We need to find a solution fast, but we aren’t willing to pay for it at any price.
DER SPIEGEL: How will you react if the Taliban demand that Germany continue to finance development projects?
Maas: We want to make it possible for all local staff to be evacuated, including those who assisted Germany’s development aid organization (GIZ). So, there will soon be no more people who can carry out development projects for the time being. Our top priority at this time it to continue organizing humanitarian assistance – and in a way that it reaches those who need it.
DER SPIEGEL: German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer proposed evacuating local staff who have worked for the German military or other agencies stretching back to 2013, but the development minister has opposed the idea. What is your position?
Maas: It isn’t my job to reveal the details of these discussions to you. Most likely you know them already. In any case, this issue was discussed. The roughly 2,500 local support staff of the Bundeswehr have been prioritized because they face the greatest danger. If we add local development support staff and human rights activists, we’re talking about a total of 10,000 people.
DER SPIEGEL: Conservatives in government, with whom your Social Democrats are partnered in the current governing coalition, are speaking publicly about fears that there could be a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis. Do you share those worries?
Maas: The refugee crisis of 2015 will not be repeated; today’s circumstances are far too different. But we do have to anticipate that there will be many refugees coming out of Afghanistan in the coming days, weeks and months. And owing to the mistakes and failures of recent weeks that I mentioned earlier, I believe we also have a responsibility to not simply stand idly by as a refugee movement unfolds.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you be willing to accept groups of refugees in Germany in addition to the local hires?
Maas: We are discussing this with our European allies. First of all, we should make sure that we help the states neighboring Afghanistan cope with refugees as soon as they begin arriving.
DER SPIEGEL: How many refugees do you expect there will be?
Maas: The Federal Ministry of the Interior expects the figure to range between 500,000 and 5 million. At this time, no one can confidently predict how many there will be. But this much is certain: There will be more refugees.
DER SPIEGEL: After the bungled launch of Germany’s vaccination campaign and the poor disaster-management efforts during the catastrophic flooding in parts of Germany, this is now the third time in just the last several months that Germans have watched as their government has failed to deal well with an acute crisis. Can faith in the government be restored?
Maas: The images that we’ve been seeing from Afghanistan in the last few days are so horrific and disturbing that it leaves no one unmoved. But despite all the drama, the truth is that we have now flown out more than 1,000 people. Will the broader public conclude from this that the German government is no longer capable of acting? I don’t think so.
DER SPIEGEL: Why should Germans be confident that things will go better next time?
Maas: Those intent on excluding all risk of making mistakes end up doing nothing. That cannot be an alternative, either. The important thing is for us politicians to show that we are learning the right lessons. I also disagree with you that we as a federal government are constantly messing up. Look at how well Germany has gotten through the coronavirus crisis compared with other countries or at the fact that, after the catastrophic flooding, the federal and state governments allocated €30 billion in a very short period of time. We are far from getting everything right. But compared with other countries – and I hear this often – Germany is not exactly considered a failed state.
DER SPIEGEL: Fifty-nine German soldiers were killed in the war in Afghanistan, and many more were injured, some seriously. Were these sacrifices ultimately for nothing?
Maas: Those who have been in Afghanistan over the last 20 years have helped to raise life expectancy in the country and lower infant mortality, to enable girls to go to school and women to university, and to see that human rights are respected. Our job is to make sure that these achievements do not completely vanish. But the soldiers who were deployed there made sure in a very tangible way that human lives were saved and preserved. No one can take that away from them.
DER SPIEGEL: Many veterans of the war in Afghanistan complain about the lack of societal recognition. After the catastrophe of recent days, will Germany’s government still ceremoniously honor the Afghanistan mission?
Maas: That’s the very minimum it can do. However, we must also engage in a societal debate about ensuring that soldiers on deployment receive the recognition they deserve. That hasn’t always been the case in the past. Armed soldiers were the foundation for building roads, hospitals and schools in Afghanistan.
DER SPIEGEL: Will the election battle be dominated by the Afghanistan issue?
Maas: That’s safe to assume. Afghanistan will keep us busy until the end of September and beyond. Some are, of course, already trying to turn this to their advantage. I find it strange that conservative chancellor candidate Armin Laschet is linking the acceptance of all local hires with his chancellorship. That has more to do with responsibility than with who becomes chancellor. Whoever says this and also that the refugee crisis of 2015 should not be repeated is rather ambivalent on this issue.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you like to continue to be the foreign minister after the election?
Maas: I would first wait and see which parties are actually part of the next federal government. The race is rather more open than many thought it would be. And what my professional future will look like is really the last thing I’m thinking about right now.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, thank you very much for this interview.