MADRID – Pope Francis has criticized the West's two-decade-long involvement in Afghanistan as an outsider's attempt to impose democracy — although he did it by citing Russian President Vladimir Putin while thinking he was quoting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Asked during a radio interview aired Wednesday about the new political map taking shape in Afghanistan after the United States and its allies withdrew from the Taliban-controlled country following 20 years of war, the pope said he would answer with a quote that he attributed to Merkel, whom he described as “one of the world's greatest political figures.”
“It is necessary to put an end to the irresponsible policy of intervening from outside and building democracy in other countries, ignoring the traditions of the peoples," the pope said, using his own translation into Spanish.
But the words were spoken last month by Putin in the presence of Merkel, during her visit to Moscow.
During the meeting on Aug. 20, Putin scathingly criticized the West over Afghanistan, saying that the Taliban’s rapid sweep over the country has shown the futility of Western attempts to enforce its own vision of democracy. At a news conference with Putin, Merkel conceded that the operation had failed in delivering a clear future for Afghans.
"We did not want to force any system on Afghanistan,” Merkel told reporters. “But we saw that millions of girls were glad to go to school and that women could participate. There are many in Afghanistan who are very, very unhappy about developments now.”
Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, refused to comment directly on the pope's comments when asked on Wednesday, but he added that Merkel's position on Afghanistan was well known and repeated during a recent speech to the German parliament.
The goal of no international terror attacks from Afghanistan since the military operation started in 2001 “was achieved,” Merkel told German lawmakers on Aug. 25: "That was a concrete contribution to the safety of our country.”
Although she acknowledged that the West's goals may have been too ambitious and cultural differences and corruption may have been underestimated, she also said that the mission in Afghanistan “wasn’t futile” for the country’s population, as it helped reduce child mortality, deliver drinking water and electricity to a majority of Afghans and protected rule of law and the basic rights of women and others.
Merkel said the analysis of what went wrong would take time and each international mission would need to be assessed on its own, but she added that “we must not and won’t forget Afghanistan, because even if it doesn’t look like it in this bitter hour I’m convinced that no violence and no ideology will stop people’s urge toward freedom, justice and peace forever.”
The Vatican didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the pope's interview with Spain's Cadena COPE, which took place Friday at his residence. The radio station owned by Spain's Catholic bishops' conference aired the talk on Wednesday and said that its content had been vetted by the pope himself.
Francis also said that “not all eventualities were taken into account” in the departure of Western allies from Afghanistan.
“I don’t know whether there will be a review or not (about what happened during the withdrawal), but certainly there was a lot of deception perhaps on the part of the new (Afghan) authorities,” said the pope. “I say deceit or a lot of naivety.”
He said he believed that the Vatican’s top diplomat was offering to engage in Afghanistan to make sure that locals don’t suffer and called for Christians across the world to engage in “prayer, penance and fasting” in the face of events in Afghanistan.
In the interview, Pope Francis addressed direct questions about his health for the first time since he underwent bowel surgery in early July.
He said his body is adjusting well to the removal of part of his colon and that he can now eat whatever he wants and leads “a totally normal life.”
He said that he expected his trip to Slovakia and Hungary between Sept. 12-15 would be as busy as previous ones. He also has an upcoming tour taking him to Cyprus, Greece and Malta.
The pope also said he was expecting to appear and speak at the U.N.-sponsored COP26 climate talks in November in Glasgow, Scotland.
Frank Jordans reported from Berlin. Geir Moulson in Berlin, Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow also contributed to this report.