The deployment of the German military, the Bundeswehr, in Afghanistan has come in for more and more criticism during the past few weeks. The German populace overwhelmingly want the fastest possible withdrawal and fear that more German troops will be sent to Afghanistan.
But that's not the only problem facing Chancellor Angela Merkel. Within her coalition -- made up of her conservatives paired with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) -- there are a number of parliamentarians who are rebelling from the party line. And overshadowing it all is the growing scandal surrounding the controversial, German-ordered bombing of two tanker trucks near Kunduz in Afghanistan -- an attack that led to the deaths of numerous, perhaps dozens, of civilians and has already resulted in one resignation from Merkel's cabinet.
Now the government is going on the counter-attack -- and has opted for a strategy of transparency. On Thursday, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, addressing the German parliament, the Bundestag, revised his assessment of the air strikes in Kunduz. In early November, he was still justifying the attack as being "militarily appropriate." But on Thursday, Guttenberg said for the first time that the bombing was "militarily inappropriate." He said his new assessment was based on documents that he had not seen when he made his first statement. However Guttenberg added the qualification that he did not doubt that the German officer who had ordered the air strike, Colonel George Klein, had acted in the interests of his soldiers.
The change in Guttenberg's position is not in itself that surprising, but the speed with which the minister reacted has astonished observers. Guttenberg, together with a small task force in the Defense Ministry, had spent the past few days re-examining all the available documents relating to the incident. By the end of last week, it was already clear to the team that Guttenberg needed to make a fundamental reassessment of the situation.
During the Bundestag debate Thursday on the extension of the Bundeswehr's mandate in Afghanistan, which the parliament went on to pass, the government opted for a second line of rhetorical attack. Speaking ahead of Guttenberg, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle clearly wanted to take the wind out of the sails of the ongoing debate about a possible increase in German troop levels in Afghanistan, which was given added impetus this week by US President Barack Obama's announcement of his new Afghanistan strategy on Tuesday.
Westerwelle said the upcoming conference on Afghanistan in late January in London was not a "donor conference for troops." Instead, the conference was about finding the "correct strategy," he said, adding that holding a debate about troop numbers ahead of the meeting was doing things "in the wrong order."
Westerwelle also made it clear that Merkel's government will in the future put a stronger priority on civil reconstruction and the training of Afghan police forces. "This is a clear statement from the government," he said.
The government's position was backed up by coalition backbenchers. "This is a political shift toward different objectives," Hans-Peter Uhl, a parliamentarian from the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, who has been critical of the mission in the past, told SPIEGEL ONLINE after the Bundestag debate. Instead of "illusory goals" such as a democratic system based on the Western model, a complete halt to poppy cultivation and the elimination of corruption, the West must now adopt "realistic goals" such as efforts to strengthen the rule of law and set up basic democratic structures, Uhl said. Although he did not want to make any predictions, he said that there might be no need for an additional increase in German troop levels "if we massively push ahead with police training."
It is rare to hear fundamental opposition to the military operation in Afghanistan from within the conservative and FDP parliamentary groups. Anyone who steps out of line is immediately so exposed that he or she could find their political careers in danger. Jürgen Koppelin, who is head of the FDP's branch in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, is one of the few who are prepared to openly question the ISAF mandate. "I will, as in the past, vote against it," Koppelin told SPIEGEL ONLINE before the vote.
The argument that the forces in Afghanistan are engaged in a struggle against terrorism is "duplicitous," Koppelin said. If one were to take it seriously, "we would really need to be in Pakistan too."
The number of Germans who oppose the Bundeswehr's mission to Afghanistan is increasing. According to a new ARD-Deutschlandtrend survey, some 69 percent of German citizens are in favor of withdrawing German forces from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Only 27 percent of Germans believe that Bundeswehr troops should remain stationed in Afghanistan, a drop of 10 points since the last survey in September. The survey, the results of which were released late on Thursday evening, also revealed that over three-quarters of Germans no longer trust the German government to provide "full and honest" information about the Afghanistan mission.
Political Balancing Act
While the government is making its preparations for the Afghanistan conference in January, Guttenberg will need to provide more details about the Kunduz affair to a Bundestag investigative committee which will soon begin looking into the incident. It's a difficult political balancing act. He condemns the attack while at the same time assuring Colonel Georg Klein, the officer responsible for the air strike, that he will stand by him. The paradox is due to the sense of solidarity within the armed forces -- if Guttenberg were to publicly denounce Klein, it would be interpreted within the army as a betrayal.
Within the Defense Ministry, assurances are being made that Klein will be well looked after and will be helped out with a lawyer, among other things. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Klein violated various ISAF procedures with his decisions both before and after the bombing. New documents even raise suspicions that Klein hindered attempts after the incident to clarify what happened.
And Guttenberg will also find himself facing new questions once the parliamentary inquiry makes public more details of the NATO report that Guttenberg had seen before his initial assessment of the situation, the assessment that he has now revised. Although the report is written in a neutral tone and makes few judgments about Klein's behavior, the mistakes are clearly identified in the document. It does not make sense why Guttenberg, having read the report, would have used the word "appropriate," or why he described the air strikes as unavoidable.
The new documents,which are now available to the Defense Ministry, do not throw an entirely new light on the operation -- at most a few new details are clarified. However, according to the military police report, the cover-up of which ultimately cost Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Deputy Defense Minister Peter Wichert their jobs, there are doubts about many aspects of Colonel Klein's analysis of the situation. In particular, a statement by an Afghan informant, who clearly identified the people around the tanker as Taliban, seems in retrospect to hold little weight.
Politically, Guttenberg is once again demonstrating a break with the weaknesses that had been typical of the Defense Ministry in recent years. His new approach seems to be the following: Better to admit that your assessment of the situation was wrong, than to stick to it and find it turns into a political millstone around your neck. In sharp contrast to his predecessor Franz Josef Jung, Guttenberg has recognized the political dangers that the Kunduz affair now poses.
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