The participation of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, in the NATO mission in Afghanistan has always been a political hot potato, especially as the government in Berlin needs to renew its mandate every year. And with Germany's ruling coalition looking for support for the next mandate renewal in January, the news that the number of German troops stationed in Afghanistan will be reduced by nearly 1,000 by the beginning of 2013, ahead of the planned full withdrawal by 2014, has come as no surprise.
In Afghanistan, Bundeswehr soldiers have seen heavy combat action for the first time since World War II. Based in northern Afghanistan, German forces have been increasingly involved in offensive operations to tackle insurgents after their rules of engagement were relaxed.
But now, according to the announcement from the Foreign and Defense Ministries, the German contingent of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be reduced from 5,350 to 4,900 from February, and then again to 4,400 by 2013. Most of the soldiers being withdrawn early next year will come from the ranks of troops kept in a so-called flexible reserve in Afghanistan.
The plans, which were laid out in a letter from Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, said the reduction would take place "consistent with the evolving security situation and the progress of the transition." The letter also reiterated the intention for a complete pull-out from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Westerwelle labelled the planned troop reduction "responsible" while Defense Ministry spokesman Stefan Paris said it was "militarily justifiable" and politically expedient.
'Another Important Milestone'
In addition, Westerwelle said that a mandate would shortly be submitted to the Bundestag which for the first time contained a responsible reduction in troop levels. "The apex of our engagement has been achieved," he told the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.
While the opposition center-left Social Democrats have signalled their support for the drawdown, many in the other opposition parties, the Greens and the far-left Left Party, have criticised the plans as not going far enough. SPD floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the reduction was "another important milestone on the way to handing over responsibility to the Afghan security forces," while Gernot Erler, deputy chairman of the SPD's Bundestag group, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that the reduction was significant and not merely symbolic.
But Frithjof Schmidt, his opposite number in the Greens, criticised the announced drawdown. "The government's plans are a sham," he told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. And the Greens' defense expert Omid Nouripour said: "This is disappointing news. So much more would have been possible -- a genuine withdrawal does not look like this."
For the Left Party, the only party in the Bundestag opposed to Germany's involvement in Afghanistan, senior official Wolfgang Gehrcke said every soldier leaving Afghanistan was welcome. "But the problem remains that the Afghanistan people resist foreign troops as an occupying force," he said. "This will continue to remain the case."
German commentators Friday were generally not convinced by the sincerity of the drawdown plans, but were divided over whether they were worthwhile or not.
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Now it's official: The Bundeswehr will reduce its contingent in the Afghanistan mission by around 1,000 soldiers by 2013. Nearly a fifth less soldiers -- that sounds like a real step towards withdrawal. But in reality, the government's announcement on Thursday is a disappointment."
"Because at first, almost nothing will happen. In the first step, by early 2012, only 450 soldiers are affected by the announcement. And most of those -- 350 people -- belong to the flexible reserve. It is all supposed to look good on paper for the minister responsible."
"In terms of the number of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, however, this changes nothing. The 100 remaining AWACS (surveillance planes) soldiers will be withdrawn. Behind this there is also a sham: The Afghans' own ground radar system is going into operation next year; the AWACS surveillance staff will then no longer be needed anyway. As a consequence, within the next 12 months, in all probability not a single soldier who is not redundant anyway will be withdrawn from Afghanistan."
"That, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bit rich. Only at the beginning of this year, the German government received many votes for the annual extension of the mandate in Afghanistan from opposition parties -- solely because of a commitment to begin reducing force numbers in the current year. It seems more than uncertain whether the government would have attained such a majority if it had been known in advance just what that meant."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan will be reduced in the next year. What is surprising is the timing of the announcement and the extent of the reduction. The fact that the Bundeswehr, in step with Germany's NATO's partners, primarily the US, would be cutting back its contingent, has been known for a long time. It was foreseeable that this promise would be met in view of the next mandate at the beginning of January. In this respect, the message has come unexpectedly. It fits, however, with the inclination of the defense minister to make his decisions where possible without public fuss. And the foreign minister is trying, one way or another, to sell the agreement as his success."
"The reduction is politically desirable. The Defense Ministry says the troop reductions are 'still' militarily responsible. This formulation shows the fears of the Bundeswehr leadership in the face of massive doubts among the troops that developments in Afghanistan will actually allow the current cutbacks and the full withdrawal in 2014 to take place. De Maizière is aware of his responsibility towards the soldiers. He will not allow anything that might endanger their safety."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"At least they kept their word. The German government will maintain around 500 fewer soldiers in Afghanistan than before. These are numbers which -- with the obvious exception of the Left Party -- will make it very difficult for the opposition to fail to agree in the Bundestag to extend the mission. But they are also just the numbers which were expected. Because if, as agreed, the international military mission in Afghanistan is over by the end of 2014, then the reduction in troops must begin at some point."
"But these numbers, which will be enthusiastically marketed for domestic political reasons, reveal nothing about the future of Afghanistan. It's not as if the planned reduction is due to a significant improvement in the country's security situation. The Germans are tired of the Afghanistan conflict, and the government is following this feeling. And these numbers certainly do not reveal that Germany must remain massively engaged in Afghanistan after 2015, in order to prevent an outbreak of civil war there. That is supposed to be achieved through non-military means. But the government has not yet said exactly how that will work."
-- David Knight
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