Everybody’s talking about Afghanistan – and actually meaning their own interests: the war in the Hindu Kush is merely the backdrop in Germany for domestic wrangling. Church officials are now joining a fray they had largely disregarded for the past eight years. NATO defenders see the credibility of the alliance under fire. And the chancellor is practising a political egg-and-spoon race, while her defence minister’s white lies about the Kunduz report [on civilian casualties in the botched airstrike] have now caught up with him.

All this has little to do with Afghanistan and Afghans. That’s a shame, really, in view of the innumerable corpses rotting in the Hindu Kush mountains since 1979. And it’s about time the Western community – including the Germans – got down to the nitty-gritty, because they are mired up to their necks in the Afghan mess. The question is what can be accomplished and what cannot. This is the magic Afghanistan square, in other words: peace and “nation-building”; democracy and the rule of law, replete with women’s rights; nationwide development; and an end to the geopolitical ambitions of foreign powers that have been slugging it out there for centuries. As in economic theory, these four objectives cannot be achieved simultaneously. So everything cannot and will not be alright. Because it’s not possible.

In Corner 1: Those bent on “nation-building” and reconciliation will have to give traditionalists and fundamentalists a say in Afghanistan. Together they form what is at least felt to be the majority. Therefore – Corner 2 – democracy and the rule of law will have to make room in large swaths of the country for traditional Islamic conceptions of law. Women get left out in the cold here: formal education and jobs, or getting rid of the burqa, cannot be readily achieved with the traditionalists on board, much less with the Taliban. Corner 3: Nationwide development. That will work only if the village elders and radicals play ball: where there is shooting, there can be no building. The elders are traditional to the core, and the Taliban don’t go for democracy. If we wish to reconstruct and unite, we will have to cut a deal – at the expense of the growing number of modern Afghans. Corner 4: Foreign interference. That will only end when none of the ethnic groups believes any more it needs outside help in the form of arms. The precondition is reconciliation and a piece of the power for all – see above.

Withdrawal is wrongheaded

In a word, the four goals are mutually exclusive. To achieve anything, we will have to make some ugly compromises, give up certain objectives and set priorities. After all, civil wars seldom end before one side has come out on top and really taken over. The warning that Afghanistan will relapse into civil war if the international troops pull out is outmoded: the civil war is going strong – uninterrupted. Which is why “just-pack-up-and-go-home” slogans are just as wrongheaded as any hope of military success against the Islamists.

One way or another, the Taliban are going to get a piece of the power. They are the sons of a lost generation: raised in miserable refugee camps in Pakistan, with hardly any “formal education” outside the Koran, which they have learned by heart – and “with the heart”. Offering these Taliban “rehabilitation programmes” and jobs sounds good. But it will take years and won’t convince many. A lost generation remains a lost generation. Afghanistan needs more time than Angela Merkel’s domestic agenda allows. That is another aspect of the Afghanistan tragedy.