Germans hold national elections Sunday, and many voters must feel they're in a bind. Most of the public wants to reduce or pull the country's 4,200 soldiers from Afghanistan. But leaders of the main parties counter that Germany should hang in there.
Only one party – a smaller one of former communists and far-left sympathizers – demands immediate withdrawal.
This political disconnect makes for a tricky situation, not just in Germany – which has a historic aversion toward troop deployments – but also for NATO, which must preserve unity among its member nations fighting the Taliban.
Wars can't be maintained without public support at home. That's seriously eroding in the US and sorely lacking among key NATO allies. Sixty percent of Britons want to reduce troops or withdraw them, according to the Transatlantic Trends survey by the German Marshall Fund; 51 percent of French agree. Italians, too, are dismayed by last week's suicide-bomb killing of six Italian troops in Kabul.
This explains why Germany, France, and Britain propose a UN-Afghan conference to set new timelines and benchmarks for handing more responsibility to Afghans. The meeting is a way for political leaders to show they hear their citizens, while buying time for the war to succeed.
A conference may preserve NATO unity (the US doesn't oppose it), but what's most needed is for Europe's leaders to more persuasively argue for the presence of their troops: A resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan greatly increases the risk of more terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
Belatedly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did this on Sept. 8, after a German-initiated airstrike killed Afghan civilians. She argued forcefully before Parliament against a cut-and-run strategy: "The consequences of nonaction will be held against us in the same measure as the consequences of action."
Since then, an Al Qaeda video surfaced that threatens "a rude awakening" for Germans if they do not force their leaders to pull troops from Afghanistan. The public is nervous, remembering the terrorist train bombings that preceded Spain's elections in 2004.
Germany has stepped up security at airports and train stations, and Ms. Merkel has urged calm. Her government has also publicly rejected the idea that terrorists can influence the "democratic formation of opinion" in Germany.
Merkel is likely to win the election. But if NATO wants to avoid "going wobbly" (to use a phrase of Margaret Thatcher's), she and others – including President Obama – will have to bring their publics around. Or follow them on a risky retreat.