Kabul’s largest park, which spans 12 hectares, is in the south of the city. The people of Kabul meet there for walks, trees have been planted and sports grounds built. Cultural events are being held in the reconstructed Chihilsitoon Palace. It is one of the places in Kabul, in Afghanistan, a country plagued by war and conflict, where things are relatively normal and also relatively safe.
Chihilsitoon Palace mirrors the history of this country. It served as the summer residence of the Afghan kings, as a presidential palace and government guest house. It suffered serious damage during the Soviet invasion, while the civil war in the 1990s left it completely destroyed. The whole garden was reduced to a lunar landscape.
The year 2015 was the turning point. With Germany’s support, the Aga Khan Foundation rebuilt the Garden and the Palace. Normality thus returned to at least one place in Kabul.
Fellow members of this House, these days, when we look back at the Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan almost 18 years after it started, we usually talk about the setbacks we had to deal with and of those there were plenty. We must not ignore the fact that these setbacks were also in stark contrast to the ambitious goals and hopes we have harboured in recent years.
What we talk about less often are the changes that Afghanistan has seen in the last 18 years: The boys and girls born in 2001 are the first generation for decades in which most are able to attend school.
Life expectancy has increased from 44 to 62 years. Last October, the people in Afghanistan were able to freely elect their parliament for the third time since the end of Taliban rule. In a few months, the presidential election will follow.
Of course, we all know that all this progress - and it truly is progress - is fragile. But it all points to a brighter future - above all else for the people who live in Afghanistan.
Last summer, we saw how much the people yearn for normality. For the first time since 2001, there was a three-day ceasefire around the Festival of Sacrifice. Family members who had not seen each other for a long time were able to meet. Taliban fighters ventured into town and perhaps some of you will recall the images we saw: They did not just venture into town but they embraced soldiers and fraternised. Selfies captured the moment and these spanned the globe. To my mind, this made one point clear to us, namely that peace is possible in Afghanistan.
Fellow members of this House, something has changed in this country and I am absolutely convinced that we are at the dawn of a new era. There is finally movement in the peace process. One reason for this is President Ghani’s courageous offer to negotiate and the preparatory talks with the Taliban conducted by the US Special Representative Khalilzad.
No-one would seriously want to dispute that these are small steps. Similarly, we need to expect further setbacks but these are all steps that are heading in the right direction.
There is no denying that we are just at the start of what will surely be a long journey to a potential peace settlement, but it is a process. The process has been launched and currently parties who had previously not been involved are on board.
We know the Afghan Government has to be involved. But there, too, we are starting to see movement; by calling a Loya Jirga, a grand assembly, they have proven their readiness to talk.
Some may well believe that our engagement, including the military component, is no longer necessary now that the peace process has begun. But I believe that to be a dangerous fallacy; after all, particularly at this juncture, we need above all else to support the Afghan Government to pave the way for a lasting peace process.
If we want to do more than just fighting terrorism and ensuring human rights and the rule of law are not trampled underfoot, then continuing our diplomatic, civilian and military engagement is absolutely decisive.
That is why we have assumed responsibility for so long in Afghanistan. Part of our responsibility is ensuring that human rights are protected, here there is no doubt much to talk about in Afghanistan, along with the rights of women and minorities, that we preserve the first signs of normality that are starting to emerge gradually in parts of Afghanistan. This is a responsibility we want to shoulder.
Fellow Members of this House, in recent weeks and months there has been much speculation about the US withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. It is surely true that there is no final plan for what is being declared in public. What we know is that the Americans are currently reviewing their engagement in Afghanistan.
But it is also clear that we want to continue discussing, agreeing and implementing all changes to the NATO mission with the United States. We have underscored this once more in talks at all levels in Washington and in NATO.
After all, our engagement and the soldiers deployed there also depend, of course, on burden-sharing with the American armed forces.
Ladies and gentlemen, the progress made on the peace process of course means that down the line it will be possible not just to adapt but also to reduce the military and in the longer term the civilian engagement in Afghanistan. That is at the end of the day the goal that we are all pursuing. The Federal Government again outlined such scenarios and options in the paper it made available to the Bundestag. For us, what is crucial is that any changes made support a peace settlement. That is also the aim of this mandate extension.
Ladies and gentlemen, bringing stability to a country like Afghanistan given the past it has experienced is a task that will take generations to complete. It cannot happen without strategic patience and we need to exercise such patience, especially now where we are seeing the first positive signals, if we are to increase the chance of lasting peace taking hold. Our Bundeswehr mission is needed if this is to happen and I ask you today for your support.
Thank you very much.