Afghanistan: What happened to Germany's local staff?
In August 2021, the Taliban conquered Kabul. Local Afghan employees who had assisted German forces hastily fled their homeland. Many are still waiting for help
The international mission in Afghanistan, which started in 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks, eventually collapsed on August 15, 2021. On this day, the fundamentalist Islamist Taliban were able to return to power after the rushed withdrawal of foreign troops, led by the US.
Under chaotic conditions, Germany's Bundeswehr armed forces evacuated both Germans and Afghans who had cooperated for many years in military and civilian capacities. But many locals could not be rescued straight away. In a government declaration, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised support:
"We continue to make every effort to help Afghans leave the country, in particular those who have stood by Germany as local staff of the Federal Armed Forces, the police, and aid organizations — people who have worked for a safe, free country with prospects for the future."
However, two years after this pledge, thousands of former local support staff, their families, and other vulnerable people are still waiting to come to Germany. Alongside government agencies, a multitude of civil society organizations are also looking after at-risk Afghans.
No proper plan for rescuing locals
Since January 2022, Germany has taken in about 20,000 former Afghan support staff and their family members, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told the Bundestag parliament's human rights committee in June. These people were mostly working for the Bundeswehr and in development cooperation.
Testimonies from witnesses in the Bundestag's Committee of Inquiry into Afghanistan show that Germany continues to face problems helping former local employees. The committee also wants to find out why there seemed to be no suitable plan for rescuing local staff when the Taliban took back power.
Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) admitted that their ministry was not sufficiently prepared for the situation.
The idea of accommodating the fleeing local staff members in neighboring countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Pakistan was also considered yet none of these governments were willing to take in the refugees from Afghanistan.
Development ministry promised to receive 15,000
Since the Taliban takeover, the BMZ alone has committed to take in about 15,000 former Afghan employees of German development cooperation initiatives and their families. Of those, about 11,600 had traveled to Germany as of early July this year, a ministry spokeswoman told DW.
As for the remaining 3,400: about 160 of them are in transit via a neighboring country. The BMZ, with the help of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), is supporting the former local employees with their emigration to Germany as well as their care and accommodation in transit countries.
According to the GIZ, the evacuation is working well. "We knew at each moment who could leave via which route. For every person who was leaving, we had a security plan," the department head for Afghanistan and Pakistan told the committee of inquiry in early July 2023.
Foreign Minister launches additional program
In the meantime, the Taliban are increasingly curtailing human rights, especially for women and girls. That is why the German government launched a further aid program, an initiative of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Former local staff members should benefit from this, although it is primarily directed toward Afghans who campaigned for women's and human rights and people who could be targeted by the Taliban because of their religious or sexual orientation.
"Only people who are still in Afghanistan have access to this program, and it is not possible to apply from third countries such as Iran or Pakistan. This creates a dangerous incentive to remain in Afghanistan," human rights organization Amnesty International criticized.
Humanitarian aid in Afghanistan continues
Although thousands of Afghans who worked as support staff have fled the country, Germany continues to provide humanitarian aid. However, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) said it had not employed any more local staff since the Taliban returned to power.
"To be able to further support the suffering Afghan population, it is essential to have staff members from the country itself," a BMZ spokeswoman told DW. The GIZ, for example, still hired local staff. "Since August 2021, the Afghan colleagues of the GIZ are tasked primarily with administrative, technical, and logistical duties, including assessing the security situation," she explained.
Civil society organizations also continue to be active in Afghanistan and employ local staff members, according to the development ministry. The German government is monitoring the threat level very closely. "Since the Taliban took power, newly recruited Afghan colleagues of the GIZ do not work in areas that are politically exposed and could therefore potentially pose a specific danger.