At the juncture of Southern and Central Asia, there is a land of magnificent high mountain ranges, semi-desert valleys and sky-blue lakes – a land once rich in musical, literary and artistic traditions – but a land that has for decades been torn by strife. Afghanistan looks back on a long and turbulent history.
The Western world has come to know Afghanistan primarly as a consequence of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386, the NATO-led security missions and the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. In the news, we hear and read about the ongoing insurgency and the military operations that have been undertaken against it – since December, 2001, with the participation of the German armed forces. Debates about the pros and cons of this security mission feature regularly in the media, as do reports of suicide bombings, drug smuggling and women in burqas who are unable to read or write. They form our mental image of Afghanistan. Or are they just clichés?
Knowledge of this land in the shadow of the Hindu Kush is limited in the West. Only those who look deeper than the daily headlines will learn about the young Afghans crowding the universities, hungry for knowledge and eager to do their part for the country's reconstruction.
Even less is generally known about the Afghans living in Germany. According to figures provided by the foreign office, about 90,000 people with Afghan origins live in this country, some 30,000 of them in Hamburg. Among the first were Afghan carpet dealers who established trading companies and warehouses for their merchandise on the Hamburg harbor. The port city is now home to the largest exile community of Afghans in Europe. It includes Afghan restaurants and businesses, an Afghan bank and even an Afghan soccer club, the ASV Hamburg, that plays in the district league.
Many of these Afghans actually fled to Germany before the ISAF-Mission commenced in late 2001. War has dominated life in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979. The rise to power of the hardline Islamist Taliban in 1996 triggered another wave of refugees, which to the present day has not ebbed. Many come to Germany in the hope of finding a better and safer life. In 2012 alone, about 7500 Afghans applied for asylum in Germany Any Afghan who has worked for the German armed forces in that country – as interpreters or drivers, for example – has reason to fear reprisals from the Taliban after Germany's withdrawal. In the wake of accusations that the German military was leaving their helpers in the lurch, now Germany has agreed to take in more at-risk Afghans than originally planned.
But also within Afghanistan itself, Germany is standing by its commitment. Many German institutions have realized that the young Afghans' hunger for learning is in itself a key resource to be tapped for the country's reconstruction. With funding provided by the Foreign Office, the German Academic Exchange Service is offering doctor's and master's degree scholarships and continuing education. It has also initiated a large-scale drive for material contributions toward training and college-level study programs. In addition, foreign study programs are offering many Afghans an opportunity to study in Germany. A masters program at Berlin's Technical University, for example, is qualifying future Afghan Computer Science lecturers. And the Willy Brandt School in Erfurt is offering a study course in public policy to prepare Afghans for leadership positions in the public sector, NGOs and government.
In early February, 2014, the Bundestag – the German parliament – approved an extension of Germany's military mission in Afghanistan. Even after the expiration of this mandate, Germany will contribute up to 800 troops to the international presence in the country. They are to focus on training and advising the Afghan armed forces and police. In addition, the civilian reconstruction program is to be expanded.