The World from Berlin: 'German Soldiers Don't Believe In a Happy Outcome'

Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament on Thursday that the mission in Afghanistan is "indispensable" for Germany's security. The same day, her defense minister got a grilling in parliament over the Kunduz air attack in September that led to deaths of civilians. On Friday, German commentators analyze the deployment's changing mission.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Defense Minister Karl-Theoder zu Guttenberg. Zoom
dpa

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Defense Minister Karl-Theoder zu Guttenberg.

The deaths of seven German soldiers this month, coupled with disquiet about the Kunduz bombing last September have served to further disenchant the German public with its army's mission in Afghanistan.

On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to underline her government's and parliament's support for the troops and explain why, exactly, they are putting their lives at risk half way around the world. On the same day, her defence minister faced a grilling in a parliamentary inquiry into the German-ordered Kunduz airstrike on two tanker trucks seized by the Taliban on Sept. 4 that left up to 142 dead, many of whom were innocent civilians.

Merkel told the parliament, or Bundestag, on Thursday that Germany's mission in Afghanistan was "indispensable" for the security of Germany, Europe and its partners worldwide. She said the immediate withdrawal of the troops would increase the danger of terrorist groups gaining access to nuclear material.

'We Cannot Ask Our Soldiers to Be Brave if We Lack Courage'

The chancellor has been reluctant to address the mission in Afghanistan during her five years in power. However, her decision to now attend soldiers' funerals and her speech to parliament are indications of a change in approach. "We cannot ask our soldiers to be brave if we lack the courage to acknowledge what we have decided," she said, admiting that the conflict was commonly referred to as war.

The eight-year mission in Afghanistan has never been popular at home, despite being backed by all of the political parties apart from the far-left Left Party. The deaths of seven soldiers in two separate attacks in early April has only further eroded any public support, with a recent poll showing that 62 percent of Germans want their troops to be brought back home. The Kunduz air strike, particular, has upset a public already uncomfortable with seeing the German military return to the world stage.

On Thursday, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg appeared before a parliamentary investigative committee to answer questions about the handling of that attack. Almost immediately after coming into office he had said that the air strike had been "militarily appropriate." However, soon afterward he fired a senior official and Germany's top military commander after claiming they had misled him over the attack by not informing him about a secret report by the German military police that raised critical questions about the attack. He told the committee on Thursday that the air strike should never have happened.

On Friday, the German press grapples with Chancellor Merkel's new-found openness in dealing with the Afghanistan mission and with Guttenberg's performance at the inquiry.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"For the first time Merkel has had to explain what it means for the Bundeswehr to be de facto at war. She did not start this war. However, ever since the deaths of those three soldiers on Good Friday it has become her war. On Thursday, it was clear that she has understood this."

"In particular the chancellor did not keep quiet about the consequences. While she has not named it a war officially, she did not omit the consequences of the war, particularly when it comes to German soldiers. She has hit the right tone and makes one believe that she also feels what she is saying."

"She realizes that Afghanistan will demand more of her than all her other duties and responsibilities. Empathy, leadership and good arguments are demanded here."

"For the first time Merkel has spoken about setbacks and even partly mistaken aims. She admits that more freedom for women, the creation of girls' schools and road construction may be highly noble aims in themselves but they are not enough to justify this dangerous mission. She wants to get away from the illusions of the early years ... This is about more now: About the highly dangerous global terrorism that had its beginnings in Afghanistan -- and could resurface again. It is about the danger that terrorists could also become powerful in nuclear states like Pakistan. That would be a threat that could have far worse consequences than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. These reasons, which are not new, will hardly change public opposition. However, the seriousness with which Merkel presented them was new."

"Afghanistan has changed her. She didn't want it to be so, but the war and her political future can no longer be separated."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Let's face it, Afghanistan is coming closer to home. For a long time there was an unspoken division of labor between the government and the people: The former would say nothing and the later would hear nothing. The soldiers stood between them in a no-man's-land of meaning: a medal here, a few words of encouragement there, but otherwise sterile isolation."

"Since Kunduz, there is new life in the debate. Death in Afghanistan was never so present in Germany. Yesterday's speech by the chancellor showed that Germany has entered new moral territory."

"With this new openness it has become clear how ridiculous it is to be slapped on the back for calling the conflict in Afghanistan war. It would be braver to clearly speak about something else. The new American strategy -- instead of War on Terror, Counter-Insurgency -- is correct and obvious. However, it will not only cost many American lives, but also German ones. Politicians have to say all of this. Then the citizens will no longer be able to switch off."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Experienced soldiers and commanders are complaining bitterly about the lack of training for the mostly young, completely inexperienced soldiers. The missing or inadequate equipment, the arms that are too light, the lack of air support are not just criticized by those who have to go into the field but by those who give the orders."

"When the soldiers complain in the face of the worsening situation about the senselessness of their mission, that is not a sign of self-pity or fear. Quite the opposite: It is a sign of broken morale and it is a call of anxious troops to their commanders and generals to speak openly in Berlin about the sensational deficits."

"The public is not yet fully aware of the full explosive nature of the situation: that the area where the Germans are based is now extremely dangerous again. News of most incidents, rocket attacks or booby traps don't reach the public or the parliament. Mostly because German soldiers have rarely been casualties. So far, at least. However, the fatal mechanism of the denial of reality contains explosive material for the immediate future."

"From now on German soldiers are going to be going into unprotected areas with Afghan soldiers to support and lead them. Insurgents like the Taliban are increasingly popular with the Afghans. Afghan soldiers and police officers, after being trained by the West, are switching sides. Regional political authorities, with whom the Germans are cooperating, are secretly turning away. They are also plagued with doubts about an eventual victory by the Western soldiers. These developments, which are plain to see, are bewildering and demoralizing the German soldiers. They don't believe in a happy outcome."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"On Thursday in the Bundestag, it was about war and peace, about life and death. It was about the question of why the German parliament, at the behest of different governments, has sent soldiers year after year to a far-off land in the knowledge that they could come back wounded or in a coffin, as has happened to hundreds of soldiers already, not to speak of the mental injuries."

"A democratic state can not go to war in perpetuity against the will of its people. … It is not only politicians who depend on fundamental approval, but also the soldiers who are sent to the front in the name of the people. There wasn't much new to learn on Thursday about the future of the Afghanistan mission. However, the parliament made it clear that the vast majority stood behind 'its' army and behind the mission it had given it. This support is the least Germany owes its soldiers."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The moment that Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg became Germany's most popular politician was during that legendary all-night cabinet meeting about the future of Opel a year ago. While all the other ministers were in favor of a billion-euro rescue package, he preferred insolvency."

"The image was created of an unusually genuine politician, who would stand up for what he thought was right -- regardless of how unpopular that might be. There was little left of this during Guttenberg's appearance before the Kunduz parliamentary investigative committee."

"The minister's performance before the committee neither served to clear him nor to condemn him. He uses the general excuse of loss of trust to explain why he fired General Wolfgang Schneiderhan and State Secretary Peter Wichert. His explanation of what happened differs from that of the two men. The circumstances may never be fully explained, the statements oppose each other."

"The public is now getting the impression, however, that for Guttenberg, his own performance is more important than the truth. No investigative committee can answer the question of whether this kind of opportunism tallies with Guttenberg's claim to credibility. Only the voters can decide that."

Siobhán Dowling

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