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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.



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