Global Review had the honor of interviewing NATO General (retired) Hans-Lothar Domroese about lessons that could be drawn from 9 11 and the following wars. Domroese, born in 1952, son of the Bundeswehr General Lothar Domroese, married, two sons, has worked at the NATO headquarters since 1995, since 2009 he has been commander of the Eurocorps in Strasbourg and since 2012 commander of the Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum. He retired in 2016. After his retirement he is a consultant. The views expressed in this interview are his own and not those of any organization, institution or government.
Global Review: General Domroese, how did you experience 9/11? Where have you been at that day? Did you know where this attack came from as the USA supported Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida and other Islamists against communism and the Sovjet Union in Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East and it became under the Clinton administration a source of threat after the USS Cole atack, Bin Laden´s activities in Sudan and bombing of the US embassy and the planned attack on the World Trade Towers by a blind Islamist sheik. Did all this come by surprise as even the Taliban warned US officilas that Al Qaida planned an attack against the USA?
General Domroese: During this terrible attack against the World Trade Centre in New York , the Pentagon in D.C. and other places I was in my brigade’s training centre overlooking the activities of my soldiers when my oldest son called me. He told me to immediately go and watch TV because something incredible has happened. I thought my Secretary of Defence, Mr. Rudolph Scharping, who was under political pressure at that time had announced his resignation, but then I saw the awful pictures of the two airplanes crashing into the Twin-Towers. This coward attack was shown again and again. I was shocked! The world was shocked. We all witnessed this unprecedented attack against the United States and her symbol of free trade. For the first time in history the USA were attacked at their homeland.
Of course we knew that the US were targeted kind of “everywhere”, however, we never thought of such an unconventional attack of that size – 4 areas simultaneously! Shocking! We saw pictures we have never seen before. Also, we knew that the US earlier supported the Taliban in their fight against the Russians. True to the motto: my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Obviously, no one ever thought this motto thoroughly through. Today, we wouldn’t act accordingly.
Global Review: Many critics say the USA and NATO should never get involved in Afghanistan as already Homer Lea said that “Afghanistan is the graveyard of all empires”, be it Great Britain or the Sovjet Union. Was the goal of Al Qaida to get the USA drawn in a Afghanisatn quagmire which would dissolve its Pax Americana? Did they succeed?Was there alternative that a US presidnet would do nothing and not react or that the rweaction should have been not a war, but a special operation by Seals or whateever like the USA did against Osma Bin Laden in Afghanistan? Could a simple “police” operation been the answer?
General Domroese: In my opinion there was no alternative for a US president than to react spontaneous and militarily in order to demonstrate that no one ever would be in a position to attack the US without being immediately punished or confronted with a strong reaction. In other words: a police action or a special forces counter-attack would have been perceived as too simple. This coward and brutal attack on civilians and infrastructure with more than 3.000 innocent people killed and many more heavily wounded must be responded militarily with “all in methods”: first the forces, strike forces and also police, CIA, SoF and other means. It must be quick, furious and overwhelming in order to demonstrate: we will never accept an attack on “the Land of the Free” ! Also, the US wanted to show that they were not alone – all NATO allies considered the attack on the US as an attack on all, as it is written in Art V of the North Atlantic Treaty. Furthermore, the United Nations / Security Council were engaged. So, the US acted militarily, economically and politically with a whole bunch of decisive activities.
The assumption that Osama Bin Laden wanted to dragg the US and their allies into AFG in order to create a second defeat is very bold. The matter of fact was however, that the US reacted immediately and kind of successful re the Taliban’s defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan in the early years of this decade.
Global Review: The world was united with the USA after 9 11, even calling for unlimited solidarity. However, the USA didn´t limit the War on Terror on Afghanistan, but then started a campaign against the Axis of Evil and started the Iraq war 2003. Conspiracy theorist said that 9 11 was an insider job an just a pretext for a new world order.,Made it happen on purpose (MIHOP) or Let it happen on purpose(LIHOP) , just to create a new world order in the Greater Middle East and the world which was not limited on a Afghanistan war. Many supporters of Trump have this theory and use it as argument against the “globalists “and the “international interventionists”.Because of this the West split, Rumsfeld declared a New and an Old Europe. Do you think if the US foreign policy at that time would have concentrated on Afghanistan, not starting the Iraq war and containing China, the wolrd would look different today?
General Domroese: Interesting theory – very difficult to answer. In fact I do not know whether the world would look different today if the US would not have intervened in Iraq. Possible – who knows? One thing, however, I do know: you will never win a war with false proofs/arguments. The “fake pictures” about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, shown by the US secretary of defence and foreign affairs, was sadly the darkest moment of US diplomacy after WWII and Vietnam in my view.
I saw the US conducting GWOT – global war on terror. A very ambitious policy by which the US operates globally according to their choosing.
Germany, as you know, did not engage in Iraq; together with France our political leadership had had doubts about the evidence/pictures that were shown. Also, we have certain reservations regarding unilateral decisions of Nations regarding war – we prefer UN Security Council Decisions.
Global Review: How do you perceive the goals for Afghanistan since the Petersberg Conference and the development afterwards?Where there different phases in the Afganistan war-militarilly and politically? Was democracy ,women´s rightsand well drilling not the wrong approach in comparison with a stability approach? Was it not just a big lie to tell the Western audience that the NATO troops were just drilling wells and not really fighting a war against the rising Ilsmaists?
General Domoroese: Let me start explaining that there were two military missions in AFG since the very beginning: The NATO- mission, called ISAF/RS (International Security Assistance Forces/Resolute Support=Training mission) and US GWOT mission. A complicated “dual hat” operation for our American friends because they are NATO-Allies on the one hand and US-soldiers on the other at the same time. The differences between the two were significant: different Rules of Engagement and Political Control – White House for the US, NATO-HQ for the others. The use of “deadly/kinetic force” was extremely limited for Nato allies – not so for US forces and their Non-Nato-Partners.
You could argue that was never communicated clear enough; at the end I agree that it is all about perception…
Let me once again underline that we had to accomplish a military “assistance-mission” which was indeed a fighting mission. Since 2015 a “training-mission” for the afghan security forces ( Police & Military) – we had to do less with less forces. Also, the RS-mission was “in military compounds”, no longer in the streets or villages of the country. A huge difference!
On top, if I may say so, there was a so called “governance-mission”. We wanted to help our Afghan brothers to create a secure and safe environment in which social security was possible and granted, i.e. a typical afghan family had enough food and a job, children who could go to school, kindergarten or university and no one would be threatened or attacked. That was our goal: from Petersberg to today. We achieved a lot: health care, infrastructure, jobs, free and fair elections, build trained and equipped nearly 350.000 security forces, introduced human rights, rule of law, independence of press etc. That is quite something, believe me.
However, we sadly did not achieve SOCIAL SECURITY. The recent attacks on innocent civilians, on a school in Kabul or on a police station in the east clearly shows that there is still a lot to do. But this is no longer a military mission. I do hope that the peace process between the Afghan Government/people and the Taliban will reach an agreement that guarantees human rights, rule of law and independence of press, free and fair elections to name only a few. Regarding the peace-agreement, I am not over optimistic; today, roughly 40% of districts are under Taliban control. It is of utmost importance to find a peaceful solution and not to start a civil war or a division into North-West-AFG and a Centra-AFG.l Also, they must quickly come to a mutually accepted deal in order to stop the “brain drain”. AFG needs urgently these fine educated people in order to re-build their country.But THE AFGHANS THEMSELVES MUST AGREE TO A SOLUTION. It is their country – they will find a way. The International Community will and must support Afghanistan on her long way to freedom, peace and justice. All over the country there are “islands of hope” where honest and busy people create jobs and small business – as long as they continue this promising way the afghan people will be generously supported by the International Community, I’m convinced. Maybe, we have lost a few battles – we have not yet lost the peace!
Global Review: After 20 years of war , NATO withdraws, but Indian General Asthana thinks: “President Biden will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by or before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that first drew the United States into its longest war, thus keeping remaining U.S. forces in the country beyond the May 1 exit deadline. US withdrawal will embolden Taliban, which already controls over two third territory to stake claim for governing the country. Taliban thus claims to construct an inclusive and comprehensive Islamic system of governance that encompasses all spheres of life. Their promise of renouncing support to al-Qaeda and fighting ISIS seems unrealistic, because ISKP, AQIS and Haqqani network continue with frequent attacks on Afghan security forces, civilians including minorities, with no visible reluctance from Taliban. Tired of combat fatigue, it is certain that US troops will withdraw, ceding strategic space to others, but it is unlikely that this Peace Deal will work. US pull back will thus leave stronger Taliban, growing IS, emerging AQIS and suffering population of Afghanistan.” Means: there will be no peace, just a civil war and the Taliban as major force. As NATO cannot guarantee any other outcome anymore, wouldn´t it be a solution to align the seculkar forces and the other etnic warlords and to create a Northern Afghanistan liberated zone as military forrest and potential roll back option against the Taliban and support them with economic and military aid?
General Domroese: As I said before, it is a very decisive moment in our history: will the internal Afghan peace agreement be accepted by all parties or will they continue to fight each other? Will there be a certain Taliban participation in power and how will it look like? Etc. In Europe we saw in Ireland over 60 years how Protestants and Catholics fought each other until they found a fair power sharing. It is possible. And that is what I hope for Afghanistan: THEY have to come to peace. NOT us. Should they fail – the so called West or NATO will not intervene a second time. We supported them economically, militarily and politically for 20 years – now they can walk alone, almost… let’s be optimistic!
Global Review: In Germany nobody is speaking about the Afghanistan war too loudly and if, then as a looser mission nobody should repeat. However, Germany resisted the Iraq war 2003 and the NATO war in Lybia as it was clear that would have disastrous consequences for the Greater Middle East and Europe. However, the German Bundeswehr assisted in a very successful mission of the anti-IS coalition, trains Iraqi military as it also supports the G5 Sahel initiantive. But there are some politicans and military who demand “more responsibility” for Germany, Europe and NATO? What should this mean after the disastrous experiences of the former wars?
General Domroese: Great question, thank you. First of all I want to underline that Iraq and Libya operations were absolutely different and therefore judged separately by the German government: In Iraq, we did not believe in the photos showing Saddams’s weapons of mass destruction. We doubted the alleged evidence. That’s why our government did not join the US-led coalition.
In the case of Libya the Germans agreed in the “storyline”/ intel-reports of a possible genocide, however, they did not say YES or NO in the UN Security council, but abstained. That was remarkable and if I may say so, this was a disaster regarding our relationship to our allies, partners and friends because they all voted “YES”. Also, even worse, we did not stand up for our values. So we stupidly “joined” China and others. The negative consequences were on our side if you will. Friends, allies and partners asked whether they could trust Germany any longer. Our voting behaviour had nothing to do with the Middle East as such. It was simply a nightmare! Luckily, the German soldiers in NATO HQs, such as JFC NAPLES, could stay and participate in the operations – a last compromise that saved our image as a reliable partner.
The Libyan war also demonstrated that it was much easier to win a battle than to win the peace. The outcome is without any doubt a nightmare. Today, Libya has “3 governments”, is economically worse off than it was before and is “ground zero” for refugees. Also, it enables terrorist activities into the Sahel zone and neighbouring countries. Today, the result is a more instable area than before.
Having initiated two world wars in the 20th century my people learned at least one thing: never start a war again! Stand up for human rights and fight for freedom and your values.
Our responsibility today is wider than just military activities, however, it does include military craft man ship: we must accept all mission requirements including the fight, the use of kinetic/deadly force and SoF-engagements, according to the RoEs!
Responsibility includes many areas of our life, such as climate change, energy security, development assistance, health care, growth of population, scarce resources, space, etc. Germany wants to facilitate peaceful cooperation amongst nations, support human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech and independence of press – just to name a few. Our government is obliged to guarantee security, freedom and peace. Our responsibility is to engage in UN, WHO,WTO, OSCE, EU and NATO in order to protect the free world and to facilitate “social security” globally. More responsibility means: not only in Europe, but also in our neighbourhood; i.e. North Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe, Balkans and support other likeminded Nations in their areas of interest. For example the US, Japan, India and Australia in the indo-pacific region.
Again: Militarily, however, more responsibility requires to accept the same risks as our partners/allies in a given mission and to participate in all facets of that mission and not to hide behind caveats that may offer you “advantages” or “privileges”. For example we’ve got to participate in SoF and other fighting missions – we cannot let this be conducted by US, UK or FRA forces alone. Same mission – same obligations! I see room for improvement in this regard.
Global Review: Former German ambassodor to Afghanistan Dr . Seidt wrote an essay what Russia has learned from the Afghanistan experience of the Sovjet Union. First: Don´t let yourself be drawn in a quagmire anymore. Secondly , don´t try to change whole societies and define realistic and pragmatic goals. Thirdly focus on world regions you can influence, use instabilities to become a major player by the use of limited, but concentrated forces. Should the West draw similar lessons from its own Afghanistan experience?
General Domroese: Excellent statement from my friend Dr. Ulrich Seidt. I’d be more than happy to agree, however, his first finding sounds convincing when you exactly know your mission will put you in dire situations like a quagmire – every government employs troops in order to win. Not to be defeated. This finding is a perfect lesson identified – after the engagement. If you knew it before you would have possibly committed a war crime.
His second finding is very clear and I fully support his proposal.
Seidt’s third proposal is probably correct, however, not undisputed:
“Areas of influence” sounds like dividing the world into, let’s say, 5 regions. For example: China/USA/Russia/Europe/India. This meant for Europe: influence Sahel-Zone, Balkans, Middle East, Eastern Europe with Ukraine and Belarus. And so on. I believe that is a positive approach that should be considered within the UN. Also, you must define under which circumstances you are “allowed” to operate outside your area of interest. Furthermore, who is in lead? Taking my example: Middle East – EU/RUS/US/China? Or eastern Europe – UKR ? BY? Whose area is it?
To conclude: great findings that must be discussed and must be agreed upon. After our AFG missions, I really think that the times of “constabulation” is over – the future lies possibly in “areas of influence”.
Global Review: Are foreign missons for the Bundeswehr not important in future anymore , should the Bundeswehr rely on the defense of Europea and the European territorial integrity, does it, the Europeans and the USA have even the capacities to engagen in new Afghanistans or will they be preoccupied with China and Russia?What do you think shoukld be the lessons of the Afghanistan war?
Global Review: We are living in times of global power shift – the so called “power competition” between Europe, Russia, China and the US. The “white elephant” is China with Hong Kong and Taiwan as the obvious regional areas of dispute. You could argue it’s a competition between authoritarian systems and democratic states. The more China is going to be perceived “aggressive” in the Indo-Pacific-arena the more are the United States focused to that region. The Chinese Navy is indeed impressive huge and demonstrates their military power in the South Chinese Sea and Indo-Pacific. So, why is the China threatening their neighbours? At the same time the Europeans experience a more aggressive Russian policy vis-à-vis their neighbourhood. Having annexed Crimea, Russia is heavily engaged with para-military forces in eastern Ukraine and in Libya, supports the last dictator in Europe, the Belarussian President Lukachenko and in Syria President Assad and together with China tries to influence the Balkans.
As mentioned before we may return to an “area of interest” policy, i.e. the Bundeswehr will change its focus from international commitments to
Defence of Europe. In my view that would not exclude Germany from engaging militarily elsewhere. Mali is a good example. Iraq, Africa, Mediterranean Sea,…are other examples of Germany’s responsibility, however, the main effort should lie in Europe.
Global Review: The South China Morning Post reports that some Chineses strategists think about sending “Chinese peace troops” to Afghanistan. Is this a serious scenario as China also doesn´t want to be drawn in a quagmire and the Taiban and other Islamists insist on the withdrawl of all foreign tropps in Afghanistan. On the other side, could China and Pakistan team up to support a Taliban goverment, maybe in alliance with the Haqqani network, Hekmatyar and some warlords to stablize the situation in order to bulid its new Silkroad through Pakistan, Afghanistan to Iran after China a signed a 25 years agreement with Iran? As China didn´t care about human rights or ethnical values, focuses only on stability, economic and geopolitcal gains, coud such a scenarion work out? And as other Muslim countries don´t support the Uigurs, was it possible that the Taliban and other Afghan Islamists don´t support uigurs and fight the Islamic State? How will the regional powers and Russia, India and China influence the situation in Afghanistan?
General Domroese: One of those great “what-if-questions”. . Thank you. I don’t want to speculate too much whether this scenario is a realistic one, however, I’m trying to answer your questions.
China is not known as a warmonger! Chinese policy is designed to peacefully achieve goals over decades and centuries. They have a remarkable history over more than 3.000 years! They are patient and careful. Why should China want to be drawn into a quagmire ? Why should China risk to get in conflict with Russia or India over an AFG mission? I do believe that this will not happen.
Why should the Taliban want China to oversee their country? I agree that the Taliban are not really interested in the well-being of Uigurs but this does not mean that they want to be ruled or influenced by China. Nor by the so-called “IS”.
Regards the silk-road: as China is a direct neighbour of AFG it may pass thru Afghanistan on the ring-road via Kabul-Herat into Iran and then further on westwards. This project does not require China to get militarily involved in Afghanistan – just the opposite: peaceful and economically motivated would benefit China most.
India supports AFG since decades. For three reasons: first, India wants the afghan people to stay independent and free. Secondly, they keep Pakistan kind of busy – being visible and influential on both Pakistani borders: west & east. Furthermore, since decades both governments cannot solve the cashmere conflict.. Thirdly, they don’t want Chinese activities become big and bigger in that country. India is a respected friend and a partner with an excellent reputation in AFG.
Russia: President Putin aspires a consolidation and stabilization of Russia’s southern belt. A kind of Taliban-regime in AFG may negatively radiate northwards and so endanger the stability of the Russian Imperium. In particular the Muslim regions. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 I don’t see a desire to repeat this adventure, which coincidentally came alongside with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. President Putin has repeatedly called this moment as the biggest mistake in history.
Finally, why should Pakistan want a stable Afghanistan? In fact they want to see a weak Afghanistan in order to influence it according to their choosing. And Iran, too wants to influence the western afghan districts and provinces centred around Herat.
To conclude: I’m afraid that if things go wrong in AFG-Peace-Process the country will suffer many years and will be the plaything to neighbouring powers. Let’s hope that this will not happen. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that our Afghan friends find a fair agreement and will have a bright future. We will for sure be on their side.
Selected Readers´ comments
The interview is very informative, but leaves many open questions. Is this an appeal for a area of interest policy in the sense that NATO and the EU want to define these areas of interests with Russia and China. What about the Community of democracies proposed by US President Joe Biden. A Community of interests? Maybe in the case of Russia it was much more easier. You accept Belarussia as part of a Eurasia-Russian Union and make Ukraine a neutral bridge state which is neither member of the Eurasian Union nor the EU or NATO. Thereby you hope to saturate Putin and make a deal with him. Not even Trump had this idea, will Biden accept it? However such a area of interest would be much harder to achieve between China and the US if it comes to Taiwan and the Seas. If the USA gives Taiwan to China this could be the dissolution of the Pax Americana and Pax Pacifica.That might be different to Belarussia and Ukraine. Is this appeasement or realpolitics? Could you have an new definition of area of interests which could create a new sustainable World Order or wasn´t it the first step to withdraw the Western power to the final capitulation? However, while I support the idea to discuss more about interests than values and General Domroese´s statements are a shift from a dominant value- orientated policy towards a policy of interest, it remains to be seen if Western politicians will support that idea. But the main question which is not addressed: Will there be a reliable, sustainable core USA, if Trump, Pompeo or another shooting star from the Republicans should be elected.
(Note by Global Review: General Domroese thinks that the commentator misunderstood his interview and the meaning of the term area of interest policy)
Maybe the reason that the Afghanistan war failed was the geography, the corrupt Afghan government and the medieval structure of the country and its inhabitants. Some people claim that the Afghan mission was as if the US and NATO would have intervened in the Thirty Years’ War in Europe at Middle Ages. It is questionable if a conventional army can manage a guerilla war insurgency. The last two successful wars have been the Gulf war 1991 and the anti-IS war. Maybe the war against the IS could be a model for coming conflicts. However, Russia also had very successful minimal interventions in Syria and Libya at minimal costs. Maybe we should also learn from Russian experience. But future restraint against unforeseeable military adventures might be the best precaution.
General (ret.) Domroese is correct if he wants to focus on Europe and maybe some limited missions in Africa, Iraq, etc. But the situation in the Sahel zone is eroding and the question is if a Western intervention would become another quagmire. Apparently as the USA doesn´t want to engage, it will be mainly Europe´s task to deploy troops, especially France and Germany. Are they prepared for that? And another big conflict is looming in the next future. How would the West react in case of an Israeli military strike against Iran that could plunge the whole region in a conflict? Are we prepared for that?
While most of the interview seems to be in the spheres of realpolitics, some statements appear to me a little bit like naïve transatlantism and humanitarian idealism. First: Maybe the failure of the Iraq war, Afghanistan war and the Libya war was the idealistic idea to bring a democracy in mostly tribal. medieval societies. We don´t know if the main reason really was the structure of the mission, that in fact the Afghan war were two military missions with two “hats”, thereby maybe uncoordinated or even counteracting each other and if the Western countries were really so naïve or wanted not pragmatically implement a sort of political semi democratic system incorporating the Loya Jirga and the tribal structures. Second point: Every experienced military and politician and even ordinary people and Joe Doe knows that the first victim of a war is the truth. The USA and Hillary Clinton lied with their genocide and feminicide allegations against Ghaddafi Lybia like Bush jr. and his neocon crownies did before the second American Iraq war. Germany´s decision not to join the warmongering NATO nations in the Libya war was therefore correct and that it was on the same side with Russia and China, is no argument as this has also been the case in the rejection of Bush jr.´s Iraq war.