Out of Afghanistan: Obama's Plan Reignites German Withdrawal Debate

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US President Barack Obama's new plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan has reopened the debate in Germany over when its soldiers should return from the unpopular mission. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wants to start bringing troops home at the end of 2011, but military experts are skeptical.

Will German soldiers be coming home sooner too? Zoom
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Will German soldiers be coming home sooner too?

The invitation to the press statement was hurried, because German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had a scheduling problem. The politician was flying to Sudan on Wednesday night, meaning he'd be far away from microphones the next day, when lawmakers in every country engaged in Afghanistan would be commenting on US President Barack Obama's announcement. So even before the US president had spoken in Washington, Westerwelle quickly issued his interpretation of the historic speech, in which Obama would announce the incremental pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, beginning with some 30,000 US troops.

The decisive turning point will be initiated in Afghanistan "this summer," the German foreign minister said. He explained that ISAF troops would transfer security in a number of cities and provinces step by step to the Afghans in what diplomats dub a "transition."

Westerwelle also reiterated his core message several times. Germany has already been active in Afghanistan for some 10 years, he explained, adding that the German mission, which involves about 5,000 Bundeswehr soldiers, cannot be allowed to continue for another 10 years.

Westerwelle's comments to the press made it clear that Obama's accelerated withdrawal of the "surge" troops sent to Afghanistan in 2009 would also stir up debate on the topic in Germany. Westerwelle's statements were the first foretaste of this discussion. He clearly underlined the position that he fought bitterly to achieve at the end of last year. The Bundeswehr's goal remains reducing the German contingent of around 5,000 soldiers, plus a flexible reserve of 350 men for emergencies, in the winter of 2011, he said. If that works, Germany will begin a final withdrawal from the region.

Domestic Policy Determines Withdrawal Plan

When it comes to the Afghanistan question, the motives are similar in both Berlin and Washington, and the situation in the country makes little difference. Here, as in the US, the mission in Afghanistan is highly unpopular among the general public. Polls in both countries show that around two-thirds of people want the operation to end. Additionally, Obama is under enormous financial pressure because of the billions that the Afghanistan operation costs. Many Americans no longer see any sense in the operation now that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden has been killed. In Germany, the financial burden is not as great, but there is hardly a politician who wants to continue a mission that is so unpopular with the public.

For Westerwelle, who has seemed worn out since he dramatically stepped down as leader of the Free Democrats and vice chancellor in April, Afghanistan is a central foreign policy objective. Against the professional advice of those within his own ministry and the military, he has made it his personal goal to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. It would be a personal victory if he succeeds in reducing the total number of Bundeswehr soldiers stipulated in the mandate for Germany's involvement in Afghanistan, which will have to be renewed in early 2012, even if it is just a symbolic reduction of a few hundred soldiers.

Key cabinet members have already been aware since Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent US trip, when she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, that the move by the US would put the government under pressure. During the festivities two weeks ago, Obama, along with his defense and foreign ministers, already let their German colleagues in on the White House's plans. It quickly became clear to the Germans that the significant withdrawal by the US would spark energetic calls for a similar move by the Bundeswehr. The public was likely to ask why Germany could not also withdraw one-third of its troops by 2012.

Fear of a Domino Effect

At the time, Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière said it most clearly when he said the Germans feared the US withdrawal would trigger a domino effect. This prompted him to ask his counterpart, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to "be aware of the psychological effects of an overly ambitious American withdrawal on the German and European public." Internally, experts in the Defense Ministry and Westerwelle's Foreign Ministry fear that the US announcement could be interpreted in other NATO member states as a signal to overhastily pull out their troops ahead of the planned date for the withdrawal of all NATO combat troops. Up until now, NATO's deadline for ending combat operations in Afghanistan was the end of 2014.

In realpolitik terms, the German government is tightly restricted by its Afghanistan strategy. They have promised to begin reducing troops starting at the end of 2011 -- and now there's no turning back. Even though former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg managed to add a caveat to the mandate stating that this date was "dependent on the situation" in Afghanistan, it is now widely regarded as the definitive deadline. Furthermore, the opposition center-left Social Democrats, who voted in favor of the last mandate, will insist on a partial withdrawal based on that date or they will vote against the mission in parliament. Although Merkel's government has a majority in the Bundestag and could pass the mandate by themselves, it is regarded as desirable that there is across-the-board support for the mission.

It wasn't entirely coincidental that the Social Democrats' floor leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, happened to be visiting Kabul on Wednesday, where he called for an initial reduction in troop levels starting at the end of 2011.

Military Doubts

But outside of politics, doubts have emerged over the point of such a withdrawal. A growing number of insiders say that reducing the German contingent is unrealistic, given the tense and deteriorating security situation in northern Afghanistan, where Bundeswehr soldiers are deployed. Talks between diplomats and military professionals have reportedly resulted in vehement arguments, according to sources in the Defense Ministry. The generals, whose top concern is the safety of their soldiers, claim that the withdrawal date is purely based on political considerations and fails to reflect the situation in Afghanistan. More difficult discussions are expected in the coming weeks, sources say.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reserved on the issue, but the first fault lines are appearing in her center-right coalition. The situation is reminiscent of that at the end of last year, when former Defense Minister Guttenberg and Westerwelle bickered openly over the withdrawal plans. Guttenberg, who thoroughly enjoyed and fueled the fight with his political rival, made it clear that as head of the military he had the last word on every change in the contingent -- going as far as tying the decision to his own fate.

No Guttenberg-Style Mudslinging

But this time it won't come to such an open fight. Westerwelle and de Maizière have reportedly agreed to work closely on the issue and keep conflicts behind closed doors. With a minister like de Maizière, who is quieter and less vain than Guttenberg, this seems possible. But he will also work tirelessly in the interest of his soldiers and even veto withdrawal plans he believes are irresponsible, say close advisers. De Maizière has already said twice that withdrawing combat units at the end of 2011 is unrealistic.

During his somewhat premature statement on Wednesday morning, Foreign Minister Westerwelle made a noticeable effort to highlight his closeness with Guttenberg's successor. Naturally the concrete plans for a troop reduction are a task for the Defense Ministry, said Westerwelle, adding that its head enjoys his "full trust." And though he has pushed for a withdrawal date harder than any other German politician, it will not be "unconsidered or hurried," he said.

In autumn, when the discussion over the new mandate begins, Westerwelle will be measured by these words.

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