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Germany Faces Political Dilemma in Afghanistan

The gap between German rhetoric and reality is likely to increase as elections near

18.02.2008 · dw-world.de

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While experts say Germany will likely increase its military involvement in Afghanistan, the subject remains politically taboo. The gap between German rhetoric and reality is likely to increase as elections near.

The German Army's Afghanistan mission is testing Berlin's long-held prohibition against involvement in foreign combat missions like never before. Yet Germany's resistance has more to do with politics than moral qualms, experts say. The German government has spent recent weeks insisting that it has no plans to significantly increase its involvement in Afghanistan. It stood firm even as NATO allies, particularly the United States, pressured Germany to increase involvement in fighting Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan.

With national elections scheduled for 2009, elected officials aren't going to commit political suicide by proposing Germany fight alongside NATO allies in southern Afghanistan, said Thomas Bauer of the Center for Applied Policy Research at the University of Munich and an expert in German foreign affairs. "The moment this government decides to send in combat troops to the southern part of Afghanistan, they will lose the next election," Bauer said.

Germany: a reluctant warrior

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), will try to win the next elections by portraying their coalition partners, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), as pro-military. To win votes, the Left Party will try to portray both the SPD and CDU as warmongers. "Pushing this pacifist button" wins elections, Bauer said.

All of Germany's main political parties, with the exception of the Left Party, understand Germany has a global responsibility which includes sending forces abroad and want to increase participation in NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But they are afraid of voter backlash, experts say. Germans remain deeply uneasy about taking part in military missions. There's the specter of World War II and a long tradition of pacifism born during the Cold War.

This unease is shown by the limited scope parliament gave the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan. The military can send a maximum of 3,500 soldiers to work out of the relatively peaceful north of the country where it is involved in rebuilding as well as peacekeeping and stabilization efforts. "It is important for NATO to be seen as a community that implements its security strategy as a whole," German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung said recently, while insisting that Germany will not participate in fighting in the south.

Increased involvement a tough sell

The German public is overwhelmingly opposed to increasing the presence in Afghanistan. Two out of every three say they want Germany out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. This has led to a certain amount of dishonesty in the political discourse surrounding Afghanistan. Germany's troop contribution to a Quick Reaction Force is a perfect example of the divide between rhetoric and reality, said Citha Maass, the Afghanistan expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Germany agreed to send an additional 200 combat troops in July to take over for a Norwegian contingent. This force will be based in the north, but will assist allies in other regions. These troops will have a combat component, Maass said. "Instead of discussing publically that you need some combat function, the government tries to hide it," she said.

On Friday, Feb. 15, after denying press reports for days, the German government admitted it will discuss raising the number of troops in Afghanistan when the parliamentary mandate comes up for renewal in the fall. There's also the possibility of changing the length of the mandate so that it doesn't require renewal during election campaigning, according to press reports. Germany is, however, expected to stand firm on refusing to join fighting in the south.

Germany shirking its duties

Norine MacDonald has spent most of the past three years doing field research in Afghanistan as the president of the Senlis Council, a security and development think tank. She said Germany's reluctance to get involved with fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in southern Afghanistan is outrageous and incomprehensible. German politicians lack the political will and the political skill to speak about the reality of the threat in Afghanistan, MacDonald said, something which she feels is "deeply irresponsible."

"Germany is trying to create an alternate version of reality about Afghanistan," she said. "Unless you are going to go fight in the south, you are not part of the NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan."

Unclear political goals in Afghanistan

The Taliban and al Qaeda forces control secondary roads in Afghanistan's south and are moving closer to Kabul each month,. Of NATO members, only the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Great Britain currently have troops are currently fighting in the South.

There's increasing worry among experts that the NATO mission could fail to contain the Taliban.

Part of the problem is that no one really knows what the ultimate goal is in Afghanistan, said Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, a senior researcher at the Bonn-based BICC, an organization which focuses on peace building and conflict resolution issues. "The point is that they don't know what they're striving for," Heinemann-Grüder said. "What is ultimate goal for these combat missions? I don't see any political strategy behind the military effort."

For many Germans, the messier the situation in Afghanistan gets, the more reason for Germany to end its involvement. But it shouldn't take a terrorist attack on German soil for the country to realize that isolation is not an option, said Bauer of the Center for Applied Policy Research. Having the Taliban destabilize Afghanistan puts Germany at risk, even if it seems intangible to many people. MacDonald agreed, calling Afghanistan Germany's "new back yard."

"The world has shrunk so much we know that what happens in southern Afghanistan is happening on the border of every Western country," MacDonald said.

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