Germany rethinks its Afghan presence

For decades, Germany was Afghanistan's best friend. It built many of the nation's factories, schools, and electric plants and trained its police force and university professors, creating ample goodwill among the Afghan people.

"The Afghans have large – one might even say blind – confidence that they will be supported by the Germans," said Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a visit to Berlin this week.

Indeed, as NATO has endeavored to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban's influence and bring security to the struggling nation, Germany has played a prominent role. Though its wariness of combat has made Germany resistant to entering Afghanistan's restive south, its peacekeeping troops form the third-largest contingent among coalition forces after the US and the Britain.

But German doubts about the nation's expanding role in Afghanistan have arisen in recent months, fueled by a spate of attacks against German citizens and a plan to send six Tornado reconnaissance jets and 500 more soldiers to Afghanistan in April. The controversy has created a conflict within Germany's grand coalition government that echoes the crises faced by other European nations such as Italy, where Prime Minister Romano Prodi was temporarily forced to step down last month, largely because of discontent over his nation's role in the Afghan conflict.

At the time, 62 percent of Italians were in favor of total withdrawal, according to the Guardian newspaper. In comparison, a poll published Monday by news magazine Der Spiegel showed 57 percent of Germans want their government to pull out its 3,000 troops.

The rift in German Parliament was brought into sharp focus when lawmakers voted on the Tornado deployment. In a rare show of protest, 69 members of the Social Democrat party, one of the two main factions in the the grand coalition government, broke ranks with party leadership and voted against the measure.

Since then, many of the party's lawmakers have publicly railed against the plan. Former cabinet minister Renate Schmidt warned at a recent meeting that Germany risked a "slide into a second Vietnam," according to Der Spiegel.

Two members of Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats, filed suit to block the deployment, saying it violated Germany's Constitution to support the "human-rights-violating war conduct of the United States"; the case was dismissed last week.

The party's leadership has insisted that Germany must stay the course. "If we leave Afghanistan now, the situation would only deteriorate," the Christian Democrats' foreign policy spokesman Eckart von Klaeden told the Monitor. "Afghanistan would be reestablished as a haven for terrorists and Islamic extremists, and we would lose all credibility in the Muslim world."

Adding to German concerns is the recent murder of a German aid worker in Afghanistan. What's more, a militant Islamic group has captured two Germans in Iraq have threatened to kill them if Germany didn't pull out of Afghanistan by Tuesday of this week. Two other militant groups also recently threatened to retaliate against Germany if it doesn't withdraw. As of Wednesday, there had been no word of the hostages' status.

No 'war of aggression' for Germany

While the German Constitution, written in the wake of World War II, includes a ban on participating in any "war of aggression," Germans have made modest contributions to several peacekeeping operations in the last eight years. In Afghanistan, Germany has played a larger role, leading the peacekeeping force known as ISAF, which patrols the country's north. But for the most part, it has refused to send soldiers to the restivesouth.

This has vexed many of its NATO allies, and in the last six months Germany has come under increasing pressure to step up its involvement, as have other nations, like France and Italy, that have avoided sending troops to hot spots.

At the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, last November, assistant US Secretary of State Daniel Fried said that Germany's refusal to put troops in harm's way was a threat to "allied solidarity."

President Bush has repeatedly called on Germany and other nations to lift restrictions "so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy," noting the alliance was "founded on this principle." Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta also weighed in this week during his visit to Berlin with Mr. Karzai, warning Germany to "fight terror where it starts," or find itself under attack at home.

A litmus test for NATO

The pressure is only likely to increase as the coalition ramps up operations in coming months to keep the security situation from deteriorating. At the moment, insurgent attacks are on the rise – there were a record 77 suicide bombings in the last six months – and this year's opium-producing poppy crop is expected to be the largest ever. Government corruption is also widespread. These developments have caused alarm on both sides of the Atlantic, especially since the conflict in Afghanistan is seen by many as a litmus test of NATO's strength and credibility in a post-9/11 environment. "Failure could be a death blow for the organization," says Constanze Stelzenmüller, who directs the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

These concerns are not lost on German leaders, and the upper ranks of the grand coalition government have recently voiced a willingness to take German troops into the danger zone despite strong public opposition if the situation requires. "In the case of an emergency we would send troops to the south," says Mr. von Klaeden. "It would be our responsibility."

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