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As Campaigning Begins, German Politicians Struggle With Afghanistan

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits German troops in Konduz. Both main parties continue to avoid calling the country's participation in Afghanistan a "war."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits German troops in Konduz. Both main parties continue to avoid calling the country's participation in Afghanistan a "war."
There has been a clear rise in activity concerning Germany's engagement in Afghanistan of late -- evidenced by German pledges to raise its troop presence, increased military action on the ground, and a spate of official visits between Kabul and Berlin.

But the Afghan strategy of the third-largest contributor to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has stagnated, with German politicians preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections aware that the majority of voters are against the war.

The leaders of the two main parties in the September poll -- incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- have studiously refrained from attacking each other on issues related to Afghanistan and appear hesitant to present clear Afghan strategies of their own.

"In general, German Afghan policy in 2009 is completely paralyzed for the simple reason that we are in election times and the two main candidates, Steinmeier and Merkel, represent different approaches [to Germany's Afghan policy] and both of them are afraid that Afghanistan could become a campaign issue -- Steinmeier even more so than Merkel," says Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) think tank in Berlin.

This is because Steinmeier, well aware that his own supporters could join the populist wave demanding withdrawal from Afghanistan, seeks to cultivate his image as a responsible partner in the international arena. At the same time, however, he wants to be seen as doing a better job of catering to the wishes of German voters than Merkel -- but faces stiff competition from the SPD's leftist rival, the Left Party, which is already campaigning on an antiwar platform.

To this point Steinmeier has presented himself as a nonbelligerent mediator by appointing a special ministerial envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and by helping to establish an international support group for the two countries, coordinated by Germany.

Following the lead of his superior, Chancellor Merkel, who met with German troops in northern Afghanistan in early April, Steinmeier accompanied his ministry's new regional envoy to Afghanistan for a two-day trip later that month. Aside from visiting the troops, Steinmeier met in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- a move Merkel matched by receiving Karzai in Berlin in May.

Avoiding The War

The visits followed Germany's pledges last year to help ensure security for Afghanistan's August presidential election by temporarily increasing its troop presence in the relatively peaceful north from 3,800 to 4,400.

The increase is politically unpopular among voters, two-thirds of whom favor withdrawal, but Germany's main political parties are united in promoting the important role Berlin can play on the civilian end in rebuilding Afghanistan.

German Foreign Minister Steinmeier with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul
"The basic predicament is that the German government -- much too late, and then not good enough -- developed a strategy by which it could convince citizens that Germany's engagement -- militarily, financially, and in terms of development --- serves the national interest," says Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, foreign editor of the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung."

This delicate approach has depended heavily on avoiding any hint of involvement in a war.

The German government is careful to describe its involvement in Afghanistan as a "stability mission," and troops are limited by parliament to narrow rules of engagement intended to keep them out of harm's way.

But Berlin has to weigh the approach against its eagerness to be seen as willing to fulfill its international commitments to ISAF, mockingly called "I Saw Americans Fighting" by some U.S. soldiers.

And while Merkel and Steinmeier may prefer not to make the Afghan conflict a major focus of the campaign, the recent deterioration of the security situation where German troops are stationed may give them no choice.

Mounting Violence, Casualties

Only recently, debate over the German contribution to ISAF flared after German troops were targeted in two attacks -- leaving one soldier dead and bringing to 32 the number of German soldiers killed since 2002. Of special concern was the insurgents' claim that they had timed the attacks precisely for the date of Steinmeier's visit.

The Bundeswehrverband, which looks out for the interests of German soldiers, took the opportunity to tell the public that "the risks for our soldiers definitely have increased. The antagonists now act in a more organized way and with improved tactics."

Further anxiety was aroused among voters when, on May 11, German soldiers killed two Afghans in a joint operation with local troops -- the first time enemy combatants had been killed by German troops in a gunfight. Only a few days before, the capture of a high-ranking Taliban militant by German special forces cooperating with Afghan soldiers had provided a hint of a higher level of German involvement in Afghanistan.

The remilitarization of the conflict, which Frankenberger of "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" sees as one branch of U.S. President Barack Obama's new approach in Afghanistan, could also serve to bring Germans closer to the realities of war, and make it a key campaign issue. This is made more probable by the imbalance perceived by Germany's partners.

"To put it brutally, the Canadians, British, Americans want the Germans to move into the south while they themselves want to move southeast, to reduce their number of victims and also to impose some victims on the Germans," Frankenberger says.

Fight Or Flee

Even now, the SWP's Steinberg says, the debate over Germany's role is already being waged, and will only get tougher as the elections near. There is no denying that the number of German casualties is rising, he says, and the Left Party is already seizing on the issue to pursue the SPD.

Aside from gaining ground on the antiwar issue, the Left Party could exploit cracks within the SPD by presenting themselves as natural partners of the party's left wing. And if it were to succeed in this, the Left Party could deprive the Christian Democrats of a coalition partner.

"The Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other groups have chosen the Germans as an important target of their activities. This is different from the first years of the conflict," Steinberg says.

"So, the tightened situation on the ground will affect the German debate. For the parties of the governing coalition this could mean they will have to face big problems before the elections."

Such a scenario could lead the Social Democrats, in particular, to appease the public by calling for a pullout from Afghanistan. This would follow the precedent the party set in 2002 when then-Chancellor and SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder was reelected largely on an anti-Iraq-war and blame-Bush campaign.

Frankenberger of "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says that Steinmeier is unlikely to replicate Schroeder's populist tactic in full, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are quite different.

"The former was in answer to a direct attack and had a basis in international law. In Iraq this was at least dubious, if not nonexistent," Frankenberger says. "But this doesn’t change anything in the basic attitude of the population, which is -- no matter which party, no matter what class, even among the middle class -- skeptical."

The Left Party has already started to address this skepticism by pressing the government to decide: withdrawal or war.

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