By Konstantin von Hammerstein and Alexander Szandar
Sports analogies were all the rage at the NATO defense ministers' conference in Vilnius, Lithuania late last week. The 26 member states were discussing the war in Afghanistan, but those attending preferred a more indirect path to talking about the issues at hand.
Germany's NATO allies would like to see the country take a larger role in Afghanistan.
By that point there was no holding back. The Canadian defense minister served up rugby metaphors, his Portuguese counterpart likened his country to the sweeper in football and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung trotted out his football expertise. Were the football pitch divided by a 10-meter wall, coaches would have to take that into account, Jung pointed out in reference to the Hindu Kush Mountains that cut through Afghanistan. Given this division, he said, it makes no sense to rotate players from one side to the other.
'Some Prepared to Fight and Die, Others Not'
Such metaphors, of course, are a useful tool in toning down a conflict. And it was a serious clash that the defense ministers were engaged in. Just two days earlier, Gates told a Congressional hearing that NATO could be facing a divisive split. He told lawmakers that he doesn't want the trans-Atlantic alliance to turn into one "in which some partners are prepared to fight and die to protect people, while others are not." He repeated the warning on Sunday at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. His counterpart from Ottawa has even threatened to withdraw Canadian troops from embattled southern Afghanistan after February 2009 unless other NATO nations step up to the plate.
In Vilnius, the defense ministers were so caught up in their sports analogies that Jung seemed to have lost sight of what the message was. His counterparts from the other NATO countries have a "positive view" of the German contribution in Afghanistan, Jung told reporters. "All of the predictions that were made -- especially with regard to Germany -- haven't come true. In fact, quite the opposite is the case."
It was a more than generous interpretation of the truth. Jung, of all people, should know that the conflict wasn't resolved in Vilnius, but instead was postponed at best. Indeed, the respite wasn't long. In his speech in Munich on Sunday, Gates said "in NATO, some allies ought not to have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying."
Not the Case in Afghanistan
The bickering, though, is a far cry from the occasional spat between players on the soccer field. Indeed, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has defined Afghanistan as a test case for the future success of the world's most powerful military alliance. So far, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the alliance might, in fact, pass the test. An alliance only works if its members support one another. This is clearly not the case in Afghanistan.
no inclination to listen.
Jung reiterated this position last week when he said: "Our focus remains in the north." Chancellor Angela Merkel once again warned of the dangers of dividing the Bundeswehr's mission. According to Merkel, it makes no sense for the Germans to "constantly rush back and forth between the various regions in Afghanistan." What she didn't mention was that the beleaguered allies aren't asking Berlin to temporarily redeploy its troops from the north to the south. Instead, they have long called for the Bundeswehr to station a substantial combat battalion to the south -- permanently and, more importantly, in addition to the German troops already deployed in Afghanistan.
Merely the thought of giving in to these demands makes the coalition government in Berlin nervous, especially with 86 percent of Germans opposed to a Bundeswehr combat mission in Afghanistan. Many already fear that the German military campaign in Afghanistan makes the country and its citizens a target for Islamist terrorists.
That fear seems justified. Late last week, intelligence officials warned of possible attacks by the al-Qaida terrorist network in Germany. Security experts believe that the deployment of Bundeswehr reconnaissance jets is the main reason the situation has changed. "Because of the use of Tornado jets, Germany is now clearly being targeted as a party to the war," says Bernhard Falk, the deputy head of the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation.
Anticipation of a Major Showdown
The chancellor and the relevant members of her cabinet, familiar with the mood among Germans, are reluctant to openly campaign for the Afghanistan mission. Instead, their approach has been to try to please everyone. Merkel has made it clear to voters that there will be no permanent Bundeswehr combat missions. At the same time, Berlin hopes to keep its NATO allies happy by gradually expanding the Bundeswehr's mandate.
There is little to suggest that the NATO partners will fall for this strategy. "We can do somersaults if we want to, but the pressure will only increase," says a senior official at the defense ministry. In the past, he says, the Americans would wait until a few weeks before the relevant debates in the German parliament, the Bundestag, before attempting to exert political pressure. "Now they start up three-quarters of a year before the debates."
Government experts in Berlin believe that the sharp rhetoric from the Pentagon, the public attacks and US Secretary of Defense Gates' uncompromising letter to Berlin demanding more involvement ahead of the NATO meeting in Vilnius were nothing but mild chatter aimed at ringing in the next round of the conflict -- the NATO summit in April, when the 26 heads of state are scheduled to meet in the Romanian capital Bucharest. Afghanistan will be at the top of the agenda.
There, the pressure on Germany could be intense. Many are expecting outgoing US President George W. Bush -- in an effort to secure an Afghanistan success story as a counterbalance to his failure in Iraq -- to exert even more pressure than his secretary of defense has. In anticipation of a major showdown, the relevant experts at the German chancellery, defense ministry and foreign office are quietly preparing a large-scale evasive maneuver. Merkel's mission is clear: She is determined to prevent German soldiers from having to fight in southern Afghanistan.
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