Germany has 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, and yet for years there has been almost no discussion about the topic in election debates. But as Germans prepared to vote this weekend
to elect a new legislature, things began to change.
One catalyst has been the storm of feelings that has erupted over the German-ordered air strike on September 4 on two fuel trucks snatched by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
The bombing killed scores of presumed Taliban fighters and civilians who had gathered around the hijacked trucks to free them and siphon off fuel after they became stuck in a riverbed.
The German army is conducting an investigation into the air strike, which suddenly put the Germans in the unhappy position of causing civilian deaths in a country they are trying to protect.
Yet even before this month's incident, the German public had become increasingly weary of Berlin's already seven-year long mission based in northern Afghanistan's Konduz Province.
Weary enough that Germany's political parties -- almost all of which back the Afghan mission -- made efforts to keep it out of the election debate this year.
Thomas Ruttig, an Afghan expert at the Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, says the effort included postponing this year's annual parliamentary vote on renewing the Afghan mission until after this weekend's national elections.
"The German participation in the Afghanistan mission has to go through a vote every year, but it is interesting that this year the vote was postponed until December -- usually it is in October and that would have been before the election date, which is a sign that the mainstream parties want to keep the Afghanistan debate out of the electoral campaign, because there is obviously a gap between the support in the political arena," Ruttig says.
"I mean, five of the six parties we have in parliament support the Afghanistan mission, while there is only one party opposing it" -- the Left Party -- "yet we have around 70 percent of the people in polls demanding the immediate withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan."Feeling Threatened?
Public sentiment against the war has mounted as German forces have suffered 35 soldiers killed since 2002. The antiwar feeling also has grown as the German army now finds itself increasingly engaging in combat when the mission was conceived to focus on rebuilding and training activities.
A poll by the Forsa institute, taken on September 10-11, showed 55 percent of Germans wanted their troops brought home.
But the poll also showed German voters' principal concern remains the economy, with 57 percent of the respondents saying the political parties' positions on Afghanistan played no role whatsoever in deciding their vote, and only 3 percent described it as a very important factor.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's (left) Social Democrats are Merkel's main challenger.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the past week has twice issued video messages threatening Germans with "a rude awakening after the elections" if they did not push their political parties to pull out the soldiers.
A third message, issued on September 25, called on devout Muslims to join in a holy war. The German government described the message as an "abstract threat."
German police have stepped up security at train stations and airports in response to the messages.
So far, despite the growing discomfort of the German public with the Afghan mission, the political parties have shown no sign of giving up their almost unanimous support for the mission.
But Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose Social Democratic Party (SPD) party is a major challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), recently did break ranks enough to urge laying the foundations for an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan.Direct Debate
Steinmeier's initiative -- which could win him antiwar votes -- came in the form of a report prepared by his ministry entitled "Ten Steps for Afghanistan" and reported in the press two weeks ahead of the voting.
The report calls for placing a greater focus on training the police force so that Afghans can take over more security duties and allow German troops to return home. It also calls for a "significant increase" over the 200 German military trainers currently in Afghanistan and said "the aim is to create the basis for a withdrawal from Afghanistan within the next legislative period." That period normally would run until 2013, unless early elections were called.
Steinmeier later clarified in a election debate against Merkel that he is not naming 2013 as a withdrawal date but only calling for all the necessary preconditions needed to begin a withdrawal to be in place by then.
In the same debate, Merkel suddenly found herself having to play catch-up to Steinmeier. "That Germany goes in with certain ideas and says, we can do this and this by 2013, and this by 2014, is sensible," she said. But she added that the whole thing must be discussed with the Afghan government and international community.
All this, of course, stops short of opening a debate over a withdrawal timetable.
But it is as close as Germany's political parties, apart from the anti-war Left Party, yet have come to acknowledging that eventually the Afghan mission will be a full-blown part of the political debate -- if not in this election then the next.
Ruttig says he expects the German mission in Afghanistan to become increasingly combat-oriented in the months ahead. He says the challenge for Germany's leaders will be to still focus on reconstruction if they are to retain at least a public tolerance of the deployment, if not support.
"It will become probably more combat-oriented because it is being forced upon the Germans as it was forced before on the British, and the Canadians, and the U.S. and the Dutch in southern Afghanistan," Ruttig says. "I hope that under that pressure we do not forget that the other side [reconstruction work] is also very important."
He is quick to add: "The situation in Afghanistan is so differentiated, so checkered when you look at the security map, that we will find still sufficient areas in the north and northeast where we can do development and that's what we should concentrate on and not repeat mistakes that also have been made by other NATO countries in the south of just going after the Taliban and trying to kill as many Taliban as possible and then finding out that it is very difficult to make a distinction between civilians and Taliban."Not Alone
The political situation in Germany in many ways reflects that of other European countries which have troops in Afghanistan.
The countries joined the NATO-led mission as a gesture of trans-Atlantic solidarity following 9/11. Public support was shaken by the war in Iraq, but the governments chose to stay the course in Afghanistan as part of being responsible partners in the international arena.
A German patrol near Konduz in October 2008
"This [Afghan] war was never sold to European publics by European ministers in a convincing way," says Daniel Korski, a policy analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "But publicly and privately, while they were happy to parrot talk of democratic progress and assisting a war-torn country, there was always a sense that many European leaders had chosen to be involved to help cement relations with America. And I think as a result it is not surprising that European publics have not been quite convinced of the merits of this mission. And now, of course, as things get worse, this is cropping up."
Recent polls show 66 percent of the British and 64 percent of the French want their Afghan mission ended. In Italy, 56 percent want either a gradual or immediate withdrawal.
Still, most analysts believe European governments will remain firm in their troop commitments for now.
Thomas Klau, a trans-Atlantic policy analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris, tells RFE/RL that he doesn't think "any European government has an appetite for cutting and running now."
"But I wouldn't bank on the European military presence being as strong two years from now as it is today," he adds.
Canada has said most of its soldiers will be withdrawn in 2011, and the Netherlands plans to pull out its troops by next July.