Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Chancellor’s chief adviser has memory lapses

How could German policy fail in the withdrawal from Afghanistan? This is what Jens Plötner, Olaf Scholz’s current security policy advisor, is supposed to explain to the Bundestag’s investigative committee. But there is a problem.

It is an unusual role for Jens Plötner. Olaf Scholz’s chief foreign policy advisor usually works more in the background. Anyone who speaks to him knows that they are dealing with one of the Chancellor’s closest confidants. That makes him powerful.

This Thursday, Plötner sits alone behind his name tag in the European Hall of the Bundestag, opposite a group of MPs. He has been invited as a witness to the committee of inquiry into the withdrawal debacle in Afghanistan. For almost two years, the committee has been investigating how the disastrous end of the German mission in the Hindu Kush in August 2021 came about.

Jens Plötner was Political Director at the Federal Foreign Office at the time. Department 2, European foreign and security policy. Responsible for 100 employees, 12 departments and 50 foreign missions. Including those in Kabul and Washington. How could it happen that the German government was so unprepared for the Taliban to recapture the country in a flash in the summer of 2021? That the Germans had to be flown out in a panic and in complete chaos, leaving many local staff in mortal danger?

Jens Plötner tugs nervously at his chin. Nothing can really happen to him, even if he could technically face several years in prison if he gives false evidence. But it is still unpleasant for the long-serving diplomat to have to explain his political failure before this body.

He has prepared an opening statement on the situation at the time on several A4 pages. It will be a short foreign policy lecture. About the escalating conflict in Ukraine, the nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna, the change of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the USA, tensions with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, yes, also the difficult situation in Afghanistan. And in the middle of it all, German foreign policy, busy adapting to the changed security situation. You have to imagine a political director as a very busy person.

It can happen that memories become blurred. For example, Plötner answers many questions from the commission chairman, Ralf Stegner of the SPD, with “I don’t remember anymore.” This often sounds plausible, especially since the chief advisor is now preoccupied with new and no less dramatic conflicts. The crisis in Ukraine has become a war, and another one has emerged in the Middle East. And in the USA, the future president could once again be Donald Trump.

Not everything is credible

But not everything is credible. Plötner can apparently no longer remember whether he attended the first meeting of the crisis team on the rapidly unfolding events in Afghanistan. And he also no longer wants to know what he meant when he asked State Secretary Miguel Berger in an email on June 7, more than two months before the catastrophic withdrawal: “Are we prepared for the worst case scenario?”

Plötner claimed to the investigative committee that he could no longer say what he had imagined as the “worst case scenario” at the time. A look at his email at the time would have been enough. There he himself stated: “The Taliban overrun one government position after another, Kabul falls?” The state secretary’s answer: “Certainly not for such an extreme scenario.”

Today it is known that the German ambassador in Washington warned on August 6 that a “Saigon scenario” could occur in Kabul – a situation comparable to the defeat of the US military in Vietnam in 1975. The increasingly desperate reports that reached the Foreign Office from its envoy in Kabul are also known today. He felt abandoned by his superiors, as he has already testified as a witness before the investigative committee.

However, Plötner and the Foreign Office were not alone in their underestimation of the situation. On August 10, the Federal Intelligence Service predicted that the Taliban would not take Kabul for at least 30 days. In fact, the Islamists took over the Afghan capital just five days later.

The miscalculation meant that the evacuation of Germans living in Afghanistan was not initiated until August 15, the day the Taliban invaded Kabul. Only seven made it onto the first evacuation flight. The airport in Kabul was almost impossible to reach. Images of desperate Afghans clinging to the wings of planes taking off went around the world. It was only thanks to the efforts of the German army, which repeatedly landed in Kabul at great risk, that more than 5,000 people were able to be flown out.

This Thursday in the Bundestag, the members of the investigative committee presented Plötner with documents on Afghanistan that he had written or helped to negotiate. A NATO declaration of intent on troop withdrawal, for example. CDU MP Thomas Röwekamp wanted to know whether he could still remember working on this. Plötner took off his glasses, skimmed the pages, nodded. And said: “It says here that I approved the paper, so that must have been the case.” Otherwise, unfortunately, he has no memory.

Plötner: Didn’t see the chaos in Afghanistan coming

Didn’t Plötner already suspect in June how unprepared the Foreign Office could be for the chaos in Afghanistan? At least that’s what it seems like in the email he sent to the State Secretary.
In the committee he said that he had not seen the attack on Kabul coming three days earlier. And that he was only partially responsible for the evacuation of Germans and local staff.

But an unfavorable image of Plötner has long been circulating in Berlin: that he reacted too late and too timidly to threats. Before the start of the war of aggression against Ukraine, he was considered in Berlin to be an expert on Russia who insisted on good relations with Putin. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (FDP) wrote about him on Platform X, long after Putin invaded Ukraine: “Plötner is the epitome of the disastrous German Russia policy of the last 15 years, the ruins of which we are now standing in front of.”

Doubts about the German strategy

Both Plötner and his boss Scholz must ask themselves: Is caution, restraint and passivity the right strategy when Germany is confronted with crises from all sides? In Afghanistan at least, this approach has failed dramatically. Thousands of former local staff and their families are still hiding there from the Taliban. The hastily arranged evacuation flights came too late for them.

Prime Minister Wüst calls for deportation negotiations with Taliban


The committee of inquiry is not only intended to clarify how this could have happened. It is intended to enable conclusions to be drawn in order to do better in the next crisis. Plötner’s appearance raises doubts as to whether this will succeed. It shows that admitting failure in politics is not a value, but is rather interpreted as weakness.

The Chancellor’s chief advisor can rely on the short-term memory of the German public. The events of that time, which dominated the headlines for weeks, have been forgotten. Like Plötner’s memories.