By Ralf Beste and Alexander Szandar
There are now two countries called Afghanistan, and they couldn't be more different. From Washington, Afghanistan looks like a place that has spun out of control. Germany, on the other hand, sees Afghanistan pursuing a promising path.
In the American version of Afghanistan, 650 US soldiers have already died, and the number of civilian casualties grew by 40 percent last year, to about 2,100. As an emergency first-aid measure, the number of US troops in the country is now being increased to 50,000.
"The situation has deteriorated dramatically," says US President Barack Obama. In a televised address, Obama said that he expects his advisors to present him with a completely revised Afghanistan strategy by the middle of March, a "head-to-toe, soup-to-nuts" review of the US approach in the country.
Weeks ago, Obama asked his advisors to collect the best ideas being discussed in capitals around the world. He wants the new strategy to be finalized before the NATO summit scheduled for early April. The top US military commander in the region, General David Petraeus, referring to a "downward spiral in security" in Afghanistan, explained his counter-insurgency plan at the Munich Security Conference recently. "We must pursue the enemy tenaciously," he said. "Afghanistan likely will get harder before it gets easier."
"NATO's future is on the line here," said Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also speaking at the Munich conference. "What we have inherited essentially is a situation with very grand rhetoric and inadequate and insufficient resources."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is similarly hopeful. In a keynote speech she gave on Afghanistan in mid-November, Merkel said that although "sufficient stabilization" has yet to be achieved, "significant progress" has been made. "I do not believe that we need a new concept," the chancellor added.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is even thinking ahead to withdrawal from Afghanistan. He recently hinted that there were limits to what the Western alliance could achieve in the country, quipping that "government-subsidized retirement accounts and waste recycling programs" were not part of the reconstruction plan.
'Many Cups of Tea'
But instead of being upfront about the differences between Berlin's and Washington's analyses of the situation, the German government is conveying the impression that the US is finally taking the German approach: less fighting, more reconstruction aid. The "networked approach" of civilian and military aid ought to be transferred from the German center of operations in the north to "all of Afghanistan," Jung said in Munich. The Americans, he said gleefully, are finally realizing this." But it was wishful thinking.
It is true that Petraeus argued for an increase in civilian resources in his Munich speech, an approach that he noted requires drinking "many cups of tea" with tribal elders. But although his German audience welcomed these words, it ignored his call for more helicopters and combat troops.
With the new administration now in power in Washington, the debate over Afghanistan threatens to turn into a serious misunderstanding between the Germans and the Americans. For Obama, the war in Afghanistan is the good war -- as opposed to Bush's bad war in Iraq -- and it is important for him that it succeed. The president will risk everything to ensure a successful operation in Afghanistan.
Merkel and Steinmeier, on the other hand, are just as weary of the subject as their fellow Germans. The talk in Berlin only turns to Afghanistan when German soldiers have been wounded or killed there. Every week in which Kabul or Kunduz are not in the news is a good week. A new German parliament will be elected in September, and candidates know that new ideas on Afghanistan, no matter how clever they may be, won't win any votes.
A Golden Opportunity
By preferring to ignore the issue, though, Berlin may be missing an important chance. With Obama's deeply unpopular predecessor George W. Bush now out of office, the German government has a golden opportunity to explain to its citizens exactly what the mission in Afghanistan -- including its objectives, challenges and risks -- entails. For years, Germans were under the illusion that by spending 80 million ($100 million) in reconstruction aid and deploying more than 3,000 soldiers and a few police training units to Afghanistan, they were helping to transform one of the world's poorest countries into a functioning democracy.
Werner Hoyer, deputy chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) parliamentary group, wants to see Germany "participate constructively in the current strategy debate, instead of annoying the rest of the world with the concept of networked security."
Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agrees, noting that Berlin should become more actively involved: "The reform of the American Afghanistan strategy would be an opportunity for Germany to live up to its responsibility as a guarantee power under the Petersberg postwar order." He is referring to the conference on Afghan reconstruction the German government sponsored at the Petersberg Hotel near Bonn in 2001.
"A few taboos have to be broken in the process," says Fischer. "In return for having more of a say on military strategy, Germany would have to be prepared to take part in fighting the insurgency in the south of the country."
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