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Michael Daxner: Germany’s Troubles in Afghanistan

Over the past few months, a public opinion firestorm has ravaged the German government as the weight of a tragic event in Afghanistan continues to press down hard on the collective conscience of the nation. The impetus for the current uproar was the bombing of two trucks in Kunduz, Afghanistan on September 4, which was ordered by German forces and resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians (estimates range from 17 to 142). Yet, what seemed to be an ugly but collateral blip on the nation’s broad foreign policy radar has turned into a veritable crisis of the first order for the lawmakers in Berlin, with the future of Germany military engagement in Afghanistan at stake. The debate could not come at a more embarrassing moment for the government. When Germany initially committed itself to sending troops to Afghanistan, it did so wanting to be the “good guy” in the war effort—the country that would “stabilize” Afghanistan with its contingent of soldier-humanitarians while the Americans did the majority of the fighting. But now, with its soldiers both in harm’s way and inadvertently doing harm, the presence of German troops on Afghan soil has become infinitely more difficult to justify to a skeptical public at home, a majority of who now want a complete withdrawal. Moreover, there’s a growing perception within Germany that the government no longer even pulls its own strings, having recently re-committed its 4,400 troops in Afghanistan to another year of duty, while lacking a significant voice either in Washington or at NATO headquarters. Still, the new strategy proposed by President Obama is promising for those in Germany who have a political stake in the intervention. The more hawkish voices within the German government have held that domestic security and freedom are being defended in the Hindu Kush. But this argument has gained little traction lately, especially among a populace that is now so ill-at-ease about Germany’s role in Afghanistan—a role that appears to be moving toward full-fledged participation in a war not of its own making. Thus, it is welcome that the new American strategy is placing greater focus on the Afghan people and society. Likewise, the military components embodied in the upcoming Afghan “surge” seem to be more rational and targeted than under Bush, while the civil programs are stronger and likely to be less scatter-shot than in the past. But even with some good news coming out of Washington these days, Berlin still needs a clear humanitarian and civil society mission to bolster the legitimacy of its involvement in the conflict. Unfortunately, new signals from both the American and German governments are blurring the lines. First, there’s the insistence on the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden, as again reiterated by General Stanley McChrystal in the halls of the U.S. Congress on December 8, 2009. But of what use is such a goal, whether as part of the broader Operation Enduring Freedom or as related to policies against Al Qaeda? This goal is profoundly unpopular in Germany, both due to the lack of a clear rationale and the echoes of President Bush’s bellicose ideology.

THE INDEX — December 18, 2009

U.S.

Charles G. Cogan: Kind Hearts and Minarets

President Nicolas Sarkozy had some kind words to say about the Swiss the other day, in the wake of the surprising referendum banning the future construction of minarets in the Confederation. The French intellectual class, in the main, however, jumped all over him. There are indeed some kind things to say about the Swiss. They are an example of an inter-cultural modus vivendi. Of the Confederation’s total population of 7.7 million, 72.5 percent are German speakers, 20.4 percent are French speakers, 6.5 percent speak Italian, and 0.5 percent are speakers of Romansh (an obscure Romance language). All four are recognized as national languages. The Swiss gladly accept husbanding others’ money. They also husband their immaculate and picturesque farmlands. Their cities are clean, well ordered, and well policed. They also don’t like outside interference. They have a sturdy, almost totally conscript army to back this up. In the late Middle Ages, Swiss soldiers were considered among the best warriors in Europe. Perhaps this might have something to with the fact that Switzerland has not been in a state of war since 1815. Recently, the Swiss image has become tarnished, as the country’s position as a tax shelter for the super-rich has been criticized during the recent recession, and as the emergence of a far-right party has exposed a streak of intolerance in Swiss public opinion. But back to the minarets, of which there are four currently in Switzerland, where the Muslim population is 400,000. By a strong majority (57.5 percent) in a November 29 referendum, the Swiss said there shall be no more. What exactly did President Sarkozy say that caused such a typically French intellectual dither? First, that a referendum (“yes or no”) was not a good medium for such a complex subject. (The recourse to the referendum, however, is constitutionally mandated in the Swiss Confederation). Second, that rather than rail against the Swiss, one should look deeper into the motivation behind the rejection vote. Third, and most saliently, Sarkozy noted that while no one is seeking to discourage the free practice of religion, Muslims should be aware of Europe’s Christian heritage and France’s Republican traditions and therefore should not be overly provocative, choosing rather to practice their faith with “humble discretion.”

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