The World from Berlin: 'The German Military is in Afghanistan to Secure the Country'

In the wake of Wednesday's Taliban attack on German forces, commentators are losing patience with Berlin's unwillingness to commit more soldiers to Afghanistan. The Taliban's advance in Pakistan also has them worried.

A few hours after German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier landed in Kabul on Wednesday for a surprise visit, Taliban militants in northern Afghanistan killed one German soldier and wounded nine others in two separate attacks. Steinmeier is in the Afghan capital for two days to talk with President Hamid Karzai and Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, mainly about Germany's controversial involvement in the NATO mission to quell the Taliban.

German soldiers in Kunduz:
REUTERS

German soldiers in Kunduz:

The first attack, using machine guns and rocket launchers, killed one soldier and wounded four others in a firefight with a German convoy near Kunduz, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Kabul. A few hours later a suicide bomber lightly injured five soldiers elsewhere in the Kunduz province, where the Germans maintain a base.

The first and fatal attack occurred around 7pm on Wednesday evening. Half an hour later a Taliban spokesman said it was meant to disrupt Steinmeier's visit. The spokesman boasted about the attack to SPIEGEL ONLINE by satellite telephone. "We knew about the visit," he said, "and the attack is a message to the German foreign minister." As on other occasions, though, the spokesman exaggerated the damage caused by the militants.

The Foreign Ministry said there was no evidence the militants had known about Steinmeier's visit. "These events fill me with sadness," Steinmeier himself said, according to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We condemn the attacks in the highest degree. It's a cowardly, malicious attack and it shows that Afghanistan's enemies won't shy away from such cruelty. But these attacks won't keep us from standing with the oppressed people of Afghanistan."

US President Barack Obama has announced a new and more aggressive strategy to stabilize both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. He won some help for this project from European allies, including Germany, during a NATO summit in early April, but sending soldiers on combat missions to Afghanistan is still deeply unpopular among German voters.

At the moment Germany has 3,800 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan -- all in the generally peaceful north -- but Berlin plans to boost the number to about 4,500. A total of 32 German soldiers have died since the NATO mission started in 2002.

On Thursday morning, German commentators fretted about the casualties in Afghanistan and also the steady deterioration of government control in Pakistan, where Taliban militants have mounted an offensive to control towns beyond the so-called tribal areas.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The Taliban fighters know that military engagement in Afghanistan is especially controversial in Germany. They also know that the political leadership in Berlin has done little to prepare its own country for an ugly mission with more injuries and deaths. German politicians, to speak in general terms, are afraid of Afghanistan -- and of (this fall's) German election. Taliban fighters know all this, which makes Germany a ripe target. Now the government's insistence on a two-tiered Afghan mission has come back to haunt it. There are no two tiers in Afghanistan -- no safe, good-hearted mission in the north as opposed to the mean mission in the south. The German military is in Afghanistan to secure the country. To achieve this goal it will need the full support of Germany's politicians."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"It's breathtaking how quickly the Pakistani state is dissolving and how quickly Afghanistan is (again) falling apart. The Pakistani government has left whole regions to the radicals. Battles have escalated between the army and the Pakistani Taliban, which is a loose alliance of Islamists, nationalists and tribal leaders. In Afghanistan, the Taliban control the south, have advanced almost to Kabul, and are spreading their influence in the north. Yesterday they signalled that they want to go on the offensive with a wave of attacks across the country. Lately there's hardly been a day without an attack, and even yesterday, during a surprise visit by Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Kabul, there was a suicide bombing on a German patrol near Kunduz."

"All hope now rests on a new strategy by President Barack Obama, which wants to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single problem -- signified by the atrocious new term 'Af-Pak Strategy.' Obama has invited Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakstani President Asif Ali Zardari to Washington in May to discuss the new strategy. If wars could be won with words and promises at such summit meetings, Afghanistan at least would no longer be a problem…"

"One of the deepest concerns now for the US government, and others, is that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of Islamists, that a defeat of the western alliance in central Asia could bring about the collapse of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and the rise of radical Islamists (in both countries). The situation is bleak -- and the future doesn't look bright for a full implementation of the 'Af-Pak Strategy,' never mind its eventual success."

The financial daily Handelsblatt argues:

"The advance of the Taliban in the last few weeks has unsettled the US government and its allies. Will Pakistan's pro-western government capitulate? Even worse: Is it possible that nuclear weapons will fall under the control of Islamists?"

"Aware of the dangers, Barack Obama has made Pakistan's stability his highest foreign-policy priority, even ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq. At its heart, he's following a double strategy already set in motion by his predecessor, George W. Bush: massive military and economic help combined with strong pressure on Zardari and his unwilling military to fight the Taliban with enough gusto."

"Next week Zardari will travel to Washington. He won't want to sit empty-handed in front of Obama. This could easily be one reason for the current (Taliban) offensive. Zardari's political future depends on the goodwill of the United States. He's long lost all support among the Pakistani people. And the military props him up only because it doesn't want to seize power for itself -- which would have unpredictable consequences for its deeply divided leadership."

-- Michael Scott Moore, 12:30p.m. CET

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