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Germany: Once The Invisible Giant, Berlin Raises Profile Abroad, Not Least In Afghanistan, Central Asia

For half a century, Germany was a sleeping giant in political and military terms. Though evidence of Germany's economic power could be seen all over the world through its manufactured products, it had almost no diplomatic profile abroad. Traumatized by the events of the Nazi period, German leaders steered clear of an international political role. But that is changing. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has moved to give Berlin an international presence commensurate with its economic strength. That can be seen not least in its actions in Afghanistan and Central Asia. RFE/RL correspondents Breffni O'Rourke and Bruce Pannier report.

Prague, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "German security is now defended at the Hindu Kush."

That maxim, spoken by German Defense Minister Peter Struck, illustrates the startling change in thinking that has occurred within Western Europe's biggest nation over the past decade. For Berlin, it is no longer a question of guarding the home territory by waiting for Warsaw Pact tanks to pour through the Fulda Gap, heading west. That challenge is gone.

"There is naturally a new generation formulating foreign policy since 1990, with Schroeder, and Fischer -- what you might call the first postwar generation able to shape foreign policy -- and there is certainly at least a new rhetoric."
In today's more confusing security environment, protecting the homeland is often seen as better served by having troops deployed in such faraway hot spots as Afghanistan. That is to say, it's best to tackle problems through forward defense before they arrive on your doorstep. Consequently, although Germany did not participate in the U.S.-led war in Iraq, it sees itself as a full player in the international war on terrorism, according to independent political analyst and commentator Heinz Schulte.

"Germany wanted and felt required to participate in the fight against terrorism, and the fight against terrorism was clearly focused, for example, on hunting down Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the Germans contributed to that. And if you look at the numbers, what is very interesting is that in terms of the antiterror campaign after 9/11, Germany has the second-largest military contribution after the United States. That, of course, excludes the Iraq operation, which did not fall under the remit of the anti-terror operations which were agreed in NATO," Schulte said.

In Afghanistan, Germany held joint command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with the Netherlands in the first part of 2002. It was a German initiative late last year that led to the first movement of ISAF forces -- in this case, all German troops -- outside the Kabul area. Some 200 German troops are now providing security for international reconstruction efforts in the northeastern Afghan city of Konduz. Struck arrives in Konduz today for a two-day visit.

Analyst Schulte notes that the present activity is merely the renewal of nearly a century of friendship between Germany and Afghanistan. "Germany is now at the forefront of, for example, training Afghan police forces, and you will see very many German-style police cars patrolling the streets of Kabul," he said.

Berlin is also developing contacts with other nations in the region. Last week, a German delegation was in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan to the north, to discuss the possibility of using a military base as a safe haven to evacuate personnel from Kunduz should the need arise. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov said at the time that the Tajik military and the German Bundeswehr have established smooth relations.

On the nonmilitary level, Schroeder made a two-day visit to Kazakhstan last month. Germany has a special interest in Kazakhstan, as it remains home to some 300,000 ethnic Germans whose families were deported there by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the start of World War II. The issue of repatriating Germans has been a topic of Kazakh-German talks for years.

But now, as that issue becomes more settled, German officials are looking more closely at the possibility of participating in the development of Kazakhstan's oil and natural-gas industries. Schroeder said German businesses are attracted by the Kazakh combination of rich mineral resources and political stability.

Although countries with traditional links to Kazakhstan, such as Russia and China, as well as the newest player in the region -- the United States -- have strong presences, the Germans feel there is room for them also. There are already 266 Kazakh-German joint ventures, and bilateral trade amounted to $620 million from January to September 2003.

Indeed, Germany's relations with Russia itself are also warm. That the Germans are serious about taking on new commitments in the world is shown by Struck's sweeping plans to permanently transform the military. Although the defense budget and troop numbers will be cut, the more important change is that there will be a 70,000-strong stabilization force for use in international peacekeeping operations. In addition, there will be a 35,000-strong combat intervention force, capable of joining land, sea, and air operations with allied forces from NATO and the European Union.

Analyst Schulte says, however, that Germany's "new era" of outward-looking policies is so far unrealized, and that the country is still trying to find its feet in an international context. "I cannot yet detect a national German grand strategy, so to speak, to take advantage of these [various] scenarios," he said.

Another analyst, Ingo Peters of the Free University in Berlin, agreed that the new German policy is still piecemeal. He, too, sees it as only in its early stages. "It's true there are -- here and there -- new developments, but they cannot be exaggerated," he said. "There is naturally a new generation formulating foreign policy since [German unification in] 1990, with Schroeder, and [Foreign Minister Joschka] Fischer -- what you might call the first postwar generation able to shape foreign policy -- and there is certainly at least a new rhetoric."

But Peters concedes the most visible sign of a new German foreign policy is the ability and willingness of Berlin to send troops even outside Europe to participate in multilateral missions. He recalls the deployment of German troops in trouble spots of the former Yugoslavia, starting in the 1990s, which set a new direction. But he also notes that Germany's decision not to join in the Iraq war shows that the new readiness to engage in military ventures cannot be generalized.