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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. Second, there remains substantial disagreement among allies regarding the disparate goals for the Conference on Afghanistan, scheduled for January 2010 in London. I, for one, agree with the U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke that this conference is not really important, given the already existing consensus on President Obama’s strategy. The conference will only repeat what previous conferences have already decided: more money to the Afghan government in exchange for better governance. Third, there is the thorny matter of ongoing coalition support for Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Western governments have both propped him up and weakened him at the same time, creating a schizophrenic and hobbled central government. Today, much of the talk in Washington centers on how Karzai must do away with corruption in order to secure legitimacy for his government. But any historian or politician familiar with the country will tell you that Afghanistan’s corruption (based on ancient customs that soothed relations between tribes) is quite different from the kind of corruption that occurs in contemporary Western societies. These complex and ingrained traditions are markedly difficult for any leader (Afghan or otherwise) to simply eliminate—assuming, of course, that there exists political will to do so. And what of the corruption that Afghans have learned from us? The carloads of dollar bills for local warlords are well remembered from the early days of the intervention. Likewise, Afghans see evidence of corruption when coalition forces employ Western experts instead of local specialists who could do the jobs much more effectively and cheaply. What this does is create the perception of hypocrisy when Washington chides Afghan officials on the lax disbursement and handling of money and development aid by local authorities. While some may dismiss these complaints as insignificant to the larger issues at play, such views still exist, and brushing them aside does little to further our efforts at winning broad Afghan support for further allied investment, be it military or civilian. Still, eradicating such practices among Western contractors could develop into a platform for regaining some moral authority, at least insofar as it signals a desire to become more sensitive to, and less arrogant toward, the attitudes of the Afghan people. As some observers have noted, ordinary Afghans have almost been forgotten in the public debate within Germany today. In certain chambers, the only questions being asked seem to be those that concern whether German soldiers did their job according to the rules, whether the rules fit the mandate, and whether all the major players in Germany—the administration, the parliament, and the public—had been properly informed. It shows little respect for Afghans themselves when tragedies like the bombing in Kunduz are reduced to a matter of how much compensation should be provided to dead civilians. The much bigger question lingers: can German forces in Afghanistan adopt better tactics that reflect their idealized roles as soldier-humanitarians while politicians in Berlin adapt a strategy more in line with the public’s desire to engage in peace building rather than war? Only with a strong and supportive public at home does Germany have any hope in assisting the creation of a new, peaceful society in Afghanistan. Michael Daxner is professor of sociology and president emeritus of the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and has served as special counselor to United Nations missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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