Germany’s Merkel under siege after Afghanistan airstrike

The deadliest use of force by German troops since World War II has ignited a debate among an increasingly skeptical electorate.

By , Staff writer

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    German ISAF soldiers get ready for a mission outside Kunduz, Afghanistan, Tuesday.
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PARIS - German chancellor Angela Merkel, with furor at home over a deadly Afghan airstrike ordered by a German commander, told parliament today she “deeply regrets” the loss of innocent life but said the case should not be “prejudged” – an effort to push the radioactive issue past Sept. 27 elections, analysts say.

The airstrike ordered by Col. Georg Klein in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killed civilians as well as Taliban, according to a NATO report Tuesday. The deadliest use of German military force since World War II has injected an intense, emotional debate about the war in Afghanistan into a German election that had been devoid of the subject until now.

Germany and other European nations are unlikely to abruptly change their Afghan missions in the short term, despite high levels of public dissatisfaction. But German, French, and British leaders this week began to signal that their commitment is not indefinite.

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“I can’t imagine any scenario where European forces are precipitously withdrawn... I don’t believe public opinion will drive this,” says Thomas Klau of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Paris. “But neither would I bank on a strong European presence a year from now.”

In Germany, elections have turned more on the fate of Opel Motors, than on the increasing penetration of Taliban into the Afghan north where the Bundeswehr is deployed. Neither Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats nor her main opponents, the Social Democrats led by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have engaged a deeply pacifist electorate on the subject.

Berlin is an advocate of civil reform – “Afghanization” – and nonmilitary solutions to Afghanistan’s problems. It has also been the European state least publicly engaged and most shielded from war realities.

“In Germany, they aren’t even calling Afghanistan a war,” says Mr. Klau.

War hits home
But now the war has come to the election, though it is unclear whether new questions over the rules of engagement or the performance of a commander who has said he acted to protect German soldiers, are enough to unseat Merkel.

Horst Bacia, defense columnist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, offered a typical reaction: The bombing “is having a sobering effect on the home front, where people have long viewed the [Afghan] mission through rose-tinted spectacles. Why is it so hard for politicians to give convincing reasons for it?”

Across Europe, politicians may be chary of raising the unpopular war with the public, but they strongly back the UN and NATO deployment. French defense minister Hervé Morin, when asked Sept. 3 if there should be a debate on the French mission, said the debate had already taken place in parliament.

“What would happen if the international community left?,” Mr. Morin asked. “The bell would toll ... there would be absolute chaos in Afghanistan,” he said, and the state could again be a terrorism stronghold.

In recent polls, 66 percent of the British and 64 percent of the French electorate said they wanted the Afghan mission ended. Some 22 percent of Italians want an immediate withdrawal, and 34 percent favor gradual withdrawal.

Of the 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, 17,000 come from France, Britain, and Germany. The 4,500 German forces in Afghanistan have led civil reconstruction efforts in the north, away from the fighting – until now.

German, French, and British leaders in Berlin this week supported the civil and military missions in the aftermath of the Afghan elections in the short term, but questioned mid- to long-term troop commitments.

“We will help with training and civilian reconstruction, but the goal is not to lose sight of a sustainable security structure in Afghanistan,” Merkel said after the meeting, and in the wake of the Kunduz airstrike. ““We must move forward decisively on this, and as the Afghans take on more responsibility for their security, then the international engagement can be reduced.”

“You have the Brits on the one hand and the Germans on the other, both looking at this differently,” says François Heisbourg, special advisor to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “But there’s a questioning on both sides of the Atlantic – what should we do next? Karzai is looking like a South Vietnamese dictator – vote fraud, corruption. It’s getting tricky.”

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Is Afghanistan worth fighting for?

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski is skeptical about a troop surge, while Francis Fukuyama, author of "The End of History and the Last Man," sees reasons to persist.

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