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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Janine Wissler: ‘The German government is putting lives at risk in Afghanistan’

The socialist Left Party's lead candidate Janine Wissler says the German government has got it disastrously wrong on Afghanistan. Read DW's full interview here.

By: Deutsche Welle |
August 23, 2021 8:31:18 pm
Janine Wissler says the German government's approach on Afghanistan has cost lives. (Photo: R. Oberhammer/DW)

Rosalia Romaniec (RR):There are only a few weeks left until Germany’s general election and the outcome has rarely been as open as this time. We’re talking to Janine Wissler, the lead candidate of the Left Party.

Chiponda Chimbelu (CC): Ms. Wissler, you are a socialist and the top candidate of a party that always votes against deploying the Bundeswehr abroad. What do you think Germany’s role should be in Afghanistan today?

Janine Wissler: Today and over the next few days, the most important thing is to save as many lives as possible, to evacuate as many people as possible. But we must understand: After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, and 20 years of the Bundeswehr being deployed, after tens of thousands of deaths, the country has sadly neither become more secure nor peaceful. On the contrary — we are witnessing a disaster. That’s why this deployment was a mistake from the very beginning. The Bundeswehr mission alone has cost 12.5 billion euros. Imagine how that amount of money could have improved the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan! That’s why the Left has always voted against this war effort, and that’s why it’s also right that the German government should now face up to its responsibility. That means evacuating the local staff. This should have been done before withdrawing from Afghanistan. That’s a shabby way to treat the local staff. They’re flying 65,000 liters of beer out of there, but when it comes to the people that were working for the Bundeswehr and for other German institutions — the human rights activists, women’s rights activists — they’re being left to fend for themselves.

RR: We’ll talk about that in a moment. But you brought up responsibility, which includes responsibility for the world. This is also a question that concerns our viewers — this one is from Kenya.

VIEWER QUESTION: How is her leadership is going to affect the world positively?

For one thing, we need a fair world economic order. We can’t have rich countries exploiting the natural resources of poorer countries. We need a just world economic order. We must stop delivering weapons all over the world and stop supporting dictators. Instead, we need to focus on development cooperation and on improving the humanitarian situation. We need a global effort to fight hunger. I think that is urgent. That’s also a way to eliminate some of the causes behind migration. This also ties in with combating climate change. That, too, will make some regions uninhabitable. I think it’s crucial for Germany to focus on a peaceful foreign policy. That means not exporting weapons across the globe, and not building up our troops and sending them abroad, but instead focusing on civilian solutions.

RR: Even so, it’s also a matter of what role Germany plays internationally — and whether Germany should withdraw completely from its international responsibility and rely solely on development aid. That can’t be the solution. That’s no way to deal with terrorists.

But what does it mean to withdraw from international responsibility? I would say that it would make a great contribution to bearing international responsibility if, for example, we stopped delivering weapons to regimes like Saudi Arabia, until recently, or Qatar and Egypt. That would be a contribution to making the world more peaceful. It would also be an opportunity to focus more on economic development. You can see this in African countries, for example, when European fishing fleets empty the seas off the African coasts …

RR: I’d like to stay in Afghanistan. What is Germany’s current responsibility there? Right now, at this moment?

The most pressing issue is: How can we evacuate as many people as possible? And then the question arises: How can we support existing civil-society projects that have also received development cooperation funds?

CC: And how would you deal with the Taliban?

If I could just finish my sentence: How can we keep up projects there? That’s the question. We can’t just say we’re going to cut all development aid right away. We need to consider the people living there, some of whom are living in catastrophic supply conditions.

RR: Germany has already reduced or even canceled development aid. Very few funds are still flowing. Does that mean you’d be in favor of maintaining them?

I think, at the very least, we have to consider what impact this has on the supplies for the civilian population. I’m against entirely cutting off anything right now. We are in a very fluid situation. We don’t know yet how many international organizations will remain in the country, how many can continue working. It looks as if UN organizations…

RR: But you would be financing the Taliban if you kept paying now.

No, for the time being that’s not what it means. The question is: Can UN organizations, development organizations, remain in the country? Can they continue working there?

I think that’s uncertain right now. It’s too early to say how events will unfold. I am against completely cutting off the funds for development cooperation. This is about the people, who are now suffering both at the hands of the Taliban, and from the terrible humanitarian situation on the ground. Of course, we need to keep an eye on what happens next.

RR: Many countries are now speaking with the Taliban: the West, Russia, and China have all invited the Taliban. The question will soon arise as to whether the Taliban should be recognized as a government. What is the position of the Left Party?

Germany is also in talks with the Taliban. Those talks are taking place. I would even say it was a great mistake…

RR: But there is a difference between recognizing the Taliban as a government and talking to them.

The problem is that the recognition of the Taliban took place much earlier. Remember the peace talks in Doha. The U.S. negotiated with the Taliban, but left out the Afghan government. The problem is that they sought talks with the Taliban, without including the Afghan government and — incidentally — didn’t include any other states, either. To that extent, it has been a done deal for a long time. Of course, Germany will now also be talking to the Taliban, especially when it comes to the question of evacuating. I think the Taliban are a reactionary, misogynist group. I think it’s an absolute disaster that the group is taking back power in Afghanistan. I fear they’ll be even stronger than they were 20 years ago when the Western troops invaded, because it appears they’ve taken over much of the arsenal and the combatants that the West had been training and arming for years. But that’s the fact of the matter. Naturally, we’re going to have to – as is already the case – talk to the Taliban to get as many people out as we can…

CC: You are talking about what has happened. Do you have a plan or are you thinking about what you could do? What will you do in this situation?

In the current situation the very first thing is to provide help — to fly as many people out as possible. Which means rescuing first and asking questions later, and not how the German government has been doing it, which is the exact other way around. Yes, we will certainly be talking to the Taliban at one point or another, and that’s what the German ambassador is doing in Doha right now; talking and negotiating with the Taliban about how local staff and human rights activists can be flown out. Then, as I said, we’ll see which development cooperation projects can be sustained. But the fact is, the Taliban are now in power in Afghanistan. They’ve conquered the provinces. There’s still some resistance, but I think we will have to wait and see how things develop in the coming days.

RR: But that means you are in favor of the Taliban being recognized as a government. Ursula von der Leyen rejected that.

I think it’s far too early to ask that question.

RR: But the question will arise.

Yes of course the question will arise. But as I said, what does “formal recognition” truly mean? The fact is that the German ambassador, the German government, is negotiating with the Taliban. It’s not a question of whether the Left would talk to them or recognize them. That’s already the case. I find the question to be a symbolic one. Now we need to focus on helping the people who are suffering at the hands of the Taliban, whose lives are at risk. That’s the task at hand, and that is where the German government has lost valuable time. A few months ago, we had all the infrastructure available in Afghanistan. We should have flown out the local staff and those at high risk first, and only then withdrawn our forces. That would have been a matter of urgent necessity. The Left have been campaigning in the Bundestag on this for five years. In June, there was a vote on it. At that time, only the Greens and the Left voted for the evacuation of the local staff. Everyone else did not.

CC: Let’s talk about what’s going on right now. The German government’s strategy is to support Afghanistan’s neighbors so that refugees can stay in the region. Do you stand behind this strategy?

It’s good that neighboring states are receiving support for taking in refugees. Right now, I’m more worried that many people will not get out of Afghanistan at all. The figures that Seehofer mentioned — up to 5 million refugees — I don’t know how realistic that is. Opportunities to leave Afghanistan are currently limited. So yes, it’s good to support neighboring countries, but Germany must fulfill its responsibility and take people in here, as well.

CC: How many Afghans should Germany take in?

I can’t quote an exact figure. Right now, it’s unclear how many are even being flown out, and how many are reaching Germany? Of course, Germany is obligated. It is one of the richest countries in the European Union, and partly responsible for this disaster. We mustn’t forget that Germany is also responsible for civilian deaths. Just recall the massacre in Kunduz, for example. There weren’t even reparations. Germany has a responsibility to take in people from Afghanistan. That also means stopping deportations, which has only been the case since last week. It’s crucial that nobody is deported to Afghanistan, and that people from Afghanistan now living in Germany receive a secure residence status, so that they can live here in safety. Germany is able to take in people from Afghanistan. I don’t think a number can be seriously given at this time. I also don’t know where Interior Minister Seehofer got his figures from.

RR: Ms. Wissler, let’s take a quick look at this responsibility. Circumstances remains dire. The German government has admitted that it misjudged the situation. You accuse the government of playing for time. You also speak of a “failure to render assistance.” What do you mean specifically? Do you mean politically, or in terms of legal liability?

It had long been known that the Bundeswehr and the US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan. I’m under the impression that the federal government was playing for time.

RR: But what is it you’re demanding when you say that this is a failure to render assistance? What are you asking for?

I’ve already said that means we now have to fly out as many people as possible. But in some places, there’s no fixing things anymore. For many people, it’s already too late.

RR: Does that mean that the German government is to blame for the loss of these lives?

Of course! When the German government takes that much time to fly local staff out, of course they’re putting lives at risk! The people there have been abandoned. It’s been known for a long time that the troops would withdraw. That raises some questions. The Federal Intelligence Service and other intelligence services were on the ground, and Heiko Maas, the foreign minister, still claimed in early July that a rapid takeover by the Taliban was not to be expected, and that deportations to Afghanistan could continue. I believe this was a serious misjudgment.

RR: Are you calling for the resignation of Heiko Maas, or of the entire government? Are you calling for an investigation committee? What do you demand, specifically, in political terms?

We’re five weeks out from a federal election, but I do believe that the foreign minister, the Defense Minister (Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer), and our current Interior Minister (Horst Seehofer) — for whom the question no longer arises — have disqualified themselves for such ministerial offices.

We’re now five weeks away from a federal election, but the government still needs to take responsibility for this. I could also see an inquiry committee looking into what was truly going on between those ministries. Now one is shifting the blame onto the other. Recall Horst Seehofer celebrating the fact that 69 Afghans were deported on his 69th birthday. He is now shifting the blame onto Heiko Maas. Heiko Maas blames the Interior Ministry, and says the defense minister is somehow involved. What the German government is doing now is disgraceful. It’s clear the entire government shares responsibility, and by that I also mean the chancellor and the vice-chancellor (Olaf Scholz). The government have endangered human lives with their actions. I worry that they were just looking to hold out until after the election. They were trying to avoid a debate on migration in Germany before the election, and in doing so, they put peoples’ lives at risk. The entire federal government is responsible for this, especially the three people I mentioned.

CC: The resignation of the entire German government — is that what’s being called for?

No. As I said — we’re five weeks away from a federal election. The entire federal government resigning now would…

What I’m saying is that the people who made these decisions, or who avoided these decisions, and used elaborate visa procedures to leave people to their fate, or to the Taliban: They have disqualified themselves from political office.

RR: Ms. Wissler, on Wednesday the chancellor will be making a statement on the issue. However, on Wednesday, the Bundestag will also vote on retroactively mandating the evacuation mission in Afghanistan. Will the Left vote against this? That would be how you’ve always voted on foreign deployments.

Were going to take a carefully look at the draft and discuss it in a meeting with the party chair and the party faction.

RR: What is there left to debate? People are being flown out of the country. You said so yourself: they have to be brought out of the country immediately; they need to be saved. It’s a rescue mission. What is there to debate? How could the Left say they don’t support this?

Why of course we need to take a closer look at the proposal. For example, the word “local staff” isn’t mentioned even once. And that’s why our position is …

RR: They are mentioned. The local staff are described.

The word “local staff” isn’t in the draft.

RR: But it’s clear that the local support staff are being referred to.

We’re discussing that now. One thing is clear, and I pointed this out earlier: We want as many people as possible flown out. We think it’s the right thing to do. What we’re criticizing is the way it’s being handled. Far too few people are being flown out. People who are not on any lists are being left behind.

RR: So it’s possible the Left might vote against this?

We’re discussing it. We’re not against this operation. We have always opposed the mission in Afghanistan, because it was only about war and occupation. But as I said; we’re taking a close look at the resolution text. We are fundamentally in favor of flying people out. We’re criticizing the way the German government is handling it, because far too few are getting out. That’s the criticism…

RR: Is it just a matter of principles?

No, it is not just a matter of principle. Not at all. If there is one party in the German Bundestag that has been clear in its position over all these years: We stood up for local employees years ago. In June, we were pushing to get the local staff out of Afghanistan. The grand coalition voted against it. The FDP didn’t vote for it either. We as a party have constantly stood up for the people of Afghanistan — and for years we have fought against deportations to Afghanistan and have campaigned for a ban on deportations. I believe that shows we are very credible when it comes to saving the lives of people Afghanistan and elsewhere. I don’t think the Left has to hide its position. We will take a close look at the proposed resolution, and then we’ll make our own decision. It’s good that the people are being evacuated now, but we are critical of how the government is doing it.

CC: I think we should now switch to the topic of Russia. Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Moscow on Friday, and we now have a viewer’s question, from Moscow, on the matter.

VIEWER QUESTION:

Do you plan to meet Vladimir Putin? Which questions would you like to discuss with him?

I don’t have any meeting planned with Vladimir Putin, but if I were to talk to him, then I would talk to him about the situation of the opposition in Russia. I would talk to him about human rights. Apart from that, I believe that Germany should pursue a policy of détente, that is, a policy of de-escalation. I am against military escalation with Russia, even in light of all the criticism towards the Russian government. That’s what I would emphasize in such a conversation.

RR: Ms. Wissler, who would you prefer as Russia’s president: Vladimir Putin or Alexei Navalny?

There are far more progressive forces in Russia than either of them. But Alexei Navalny can be assured of my solidarity for being persecuted by the Russian government, and for being detained and wronged. But apart from that, Navalny is not someone to whom I am politically sympathetic or close.

RR: Why?

Because he’s expressed some far-right tendencies. He’s made statements I find incredibly difficult…

CC: Can you name an example of one of his statements that you found dubious?

He’s been quoted saying things about Muslims, for example, that were very problematic. But I find the question over-simplified: Do you want Putin or Navalny? I don’t think that’s a question that can just… I don’t have to choose between the two. I am against curtailing the rights of the opposition in Russia, and I am against suppressing opposition in Russia. I don’t have any sympathies with Putin, but Navalny is not the political alternative in my eyes.

RR: Why are you not sympathetic to Putin? You party has the bad reputation of being a friend of Putin’s. What do you have in common?

You say that that we have a bad reputation. There’s a big difference between sympathizing with someone and thinking one shouldn’t engage in military escalation with another country. I also didn’t hold any sympathies for Slobodan Milosevic, and I thought the war against Serbia was wrong. There’s a difference. I think we need a policy of disarmament and de-escalation. I think that something like the Defender 2020/2021 exercise, one of the largest maneuvers in recent decades taking place on German soil, among other places, where thousands of soldiers practice going to war against the East…

RR: But NATO doesn’t support the separatists in eastern Ukraine. NATO didn’t annex Crimea. Putin did, and Russia.

Yes, and I’m against that.

RR: Do you think it’s justified?

Of course I’m against that. But how does it bring us any closer to peace if NATO is practicing drills and rehearsing a war against Russia? Nobody seriously believes that we could end a conflict with Russia militarily. For God’s sake, we’re dealing with nuclear powers! We cannot afford a military escalation of this conflict. And that has absolutely nothing to do with political sympathies; it has to do with the fact that we can’t risk going to war. We can get further with diplomacy and talks; not with military exercises and rehearsals for invasion. That has nothing to do with criticizing the annexation of Crimea…

CC: The conflict on Crimea and in eastern Ukraine is ongoing. What would a possible solution look like? What would you do if you were part of the next government?

I think it is necessary to criticize what happened in the past: One the one hand, what did Russia do? And on the other, what did NATO do? I think NATO’s eastward expansion was a mistake. I think it was wrong for NATO to keep expanding eastward. After the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and the Cold War ended, I think it would have been better to strive for a different international security framework that included Russia. That would have been more sensible.

RR: Ms. Wissler, back then we had the Two Plus Four Agreement, and this agreement led to the re-unification of Germany and East Germany joining NATO. Russia, then the Soviet Union, agreed to this. How can you tell eastern European countries…

Well, the eastward expansion of NATO came a bit later than Germany’s accession to NATO.

RR: In Eastern Europe, this is considered an imperialist mentality. How can you tell countries like Poland or the Balkan states, which are independent countries, that Russia and other nations have a right to decide on the matter?

I just said: After 1990 or 1992 we would have needed a completely new security framework. That would have meant a security alliance that included Russia, where this confrontation between could have been resolved. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved — that’s good — but NATO, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, should have also been dissolved in order to achieve a security framework that didn’t escalate situations, but was based on joint cooperation. I don’t think this dangerous saber-rattling, arming and military maneuvering brings us any closer to peace.

RR: Ms. Wissler, the federal elections are coming up. You have made some hard demands. You’ve always been a member of the opposition. Now, you might be in a position to be part of a governing coalition. Would you be willing to back down from one of your maximum demands in foreign policy?

What do you mean by “maximum demands?”

RR: You want to dissolve NATO, you are against military operations abroad. Do you stand by all these points?

In view of the disaster we’re currently experiencing in Afghanistan, there is one party that has little reason to reconsider its foreign policy positions, and that’s the Left Party. We’re not responsible for this disaster, nor do we believe that we should stay out of international affairs. We believe that war, weapons, the military, do not foster peace, and human rights and democracy. We believe we should focus on a just world economic order; that we must fight global hunger, and that we shouldn’t support dictators. That’s another problem: Dictators are being supported with arms deliveries, as long as they’re agreeable. That’s our position.

CC: Let’s have a look at another crisis that has affected the entire world: the coronavirus pandemic. We have a viewer’s question from the US on the matter.

VIEWER QUESTION:

I would ask how they were planning on incorporating economic policies to assist with the possible implications of the pandemic for Germany, but also in assisting countries that are not as fortunate as Germany.

So, the first thing is, in order to mitigate the economic damage, we propose a levy on wealth. That would affect 0.7% of the German population, who would pay a one-off levy on their assets. That would increase revenues. Not everyone has become poorer during the crisis, there are also a few who have become significantly richer. That’s why we urgently need redistribution. The second thing is that we need a global vaccination strategy. We cannot allow rich countries to vaccinate their populations while many poorer countries have no access to vaccines. Across the entire African continent, we see a vaccination rate of 1.6%. That’s far too low. We need a global vaccination strategy, and we also need the solidarity of the wealthy countries. This is a question of solidarity, but it’s also a question of self-interest, because if we don’t get the pandemic under control worldwide, it will come back in the form of mutations.

RR: Thank you very much. That was Janine Wissler, lead candidate for the Left party.

Thank you.

The interview was conducted by DW’s head of Current Politics, Rosalia Romaniec, and DW reporter and editor Chiponda Chimbelu.

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