Debating War: Should Germany Stay in Afghanistan?

The government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear that it continues to support the country's involvement in the war in Afghanistan. But a majority of the population disagrees. SPIEGEL writers Ralf Neukirch and Barbara Supp wrangle about whether Germany should stay in Afghanistan or withdraw completely.

A German soldier on patrol in Afghanistan. Many in Germany think it is time for the Bundeswehr to withdraw. Zoom
REUTERS

A German soldier on patrol in Afghanistan. Many in Germany think it is time for the Bundeswehr to withdraw.

Germany Should Stay

Ralf Neukirch

War is terrible, but sometimes it is necessary. Which is why Germany needs to stay the course in Afghanistan.

The number of casualties in Afghanistan is growing, and so is the number of Germans against the war. Although more and more Germans are calling for their troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan, to do so would be wrong.

The fact that a majority of Germans are against the war is hardly surprising. Who, after all, is an enthusiastic advocate for war? And the fact that the majority is against something isn't much of an argument, either. The majority of Germans were against expanding the EU, and the majority oppose financial aid for Greece. Nevertheless, both are still sensible courses of action.

There is one thing, at least, that everyone can agree on - war is terrible. It's dirty, it kills and it maims - and it can turn people into killing machines. War should only be viewed as a last resort. But sometimes - as in the case of Afghanistan - it is necessary. Much is at stake, even if it is not primarily about democracy and human rights. Those values are in danger in many countries, and Germany doesn't send in its soldiers there. German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged this herself with remarkable candor in a speech she delivered before the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament.

Eating, Drinking and Dying Together

The primary goal of the war is to create stability in Afghanistan and to prevent the country from once again becoming a retreat for terrorists, which would further destabilize the entire region. That is the West's interest in this war, and it's a goal that justifies the victims who have been lost there. No one can guarantee that the West will achieve its goal in Afghanistan. But one thing can be said for certain: This is the wrong moment to pull out. For the first time since the Taliban fell in 2001, the coalition has a coherent strategy for Afghanistan. The plan is to fight the Taliban on its own turf and on a massive scale. At the same time, NATO wants to give a boost to the process of civil development by protecting the population more.

As one American colonel put it, the basis of the strategy is that Western soldiers should "eat, drink and die" alongside their Afghan colleagues. Rather than staying holed up in their fortified camps, they should go out into the villages and help build up local infrastructure. In doing so, the soldiers may become targets. And though it may be a dangerous strategy, it's one that might actually work.

In Iraq, the United States showed it was possible to turn around what looked like a hopeless situation. It did this by adapting its approach to realities in the country. Of course, there's no guarantee that the same approach will work in Afghanistan. But there's too much at stake not to give it a try. And it would be negligent to declare that the strategy has failed before it has even been implemented.

Indeed, even if the West succeeds, the results won't be especially pleasant. It will be necessary to come to terms with the Taliban, and there may well be war criminals among the country's new rulers. Of course, it's hard to communicate these realities to people. But the ability to explain uncomfortable truths is what distinguishes a statesman from a politician.

Would Withdrawal Really Stop the Bloodshed?

Seen in this light, what alternatives do we have? Leaving Afghanistan wouldn't put an end to the bloodshed. On the contrary, the country's civil war would break out again in full force. And the people most targeted for revenge and retaliation would be precisely those who had trusted in NATO to see its mission through to the end. It hardly bears imagining what that would mean for Pakistan, for the entire region and for the global war against terror.

Those demanding that German forces be withdrawn from Afghanistan are also aware of this reality. That's why their calls are only half-hearted. And that's why they say that, even if we do withdraw, we shouldn't do it too hurriedly and that it should be orderly. But what exactly does that mean? If we are giving up on the entire mission anyway, we shouldn't endanger our soldiers' lives for a single moment longer. If we are going to abandon Afghanistan, we should do so immediately. Anything else would be sheer cynicism.

It's hard to get rid of the gnawing suspicion that there is a different motive behind the opposition to this war. After instigating the worst war in world history, Germany spent four decades trying to be the world's most peaceful country. War was something to be left to others, we thought, and we Germans had learned our lesson.

But now it's becoming apparent that things might not be quite so simple. If you want to stop people who are both trying to kill and unafraid of dying, chances are that you won't remain untainted yourself. That might be hard to swallow, but it's still the truth.

Time To Withdraw

Barbara Supp

In the beginning, the war in Afghanistan seemed like a good idea. But it hasn't turned out that way. It is time for Germany to withdraw.

War veterans, war widows, war memorials, war dead. These are horrible expressions. Yet they have returned and so too has a reality that we thought we'd long ago left behind us. Germany's government not only wants its citizens to be aware of what's happening in Afghanistan; it also wants them to approve of it, and believe that there is a home front.

And whenever the government wants something different than its citizens, it's blamed on poor communication.

But the fact is that the populace does not believe that this war - with its deaths and its rage - will make the world any safer. The vast majority of Germans are against this war.

This kind of war has become something alien to us, and we are more than happy to have it stay that way. After two horrible world wars, Germany has become a peace-loving country that doesn't strive to make military heroes any more. In fact that is one of the best things we can say about this country.

But now Germany's government wants to rid the country of its pacifists. It wants to convince Germans that war is normal, manageable and appropriate, that they should get used to killing and dying. This process of re-education has been going on for 20 years. It really got into gear under a government led by the environmentalist Green Party and the center-left Social Democrats.

Germany's Slow March Back to War

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said that government after government had tried to "remove the taboo from military issues," as if pacifism were some kind of paralyzing poison. Things proceeded very gradually. In 1991, during the first war in Iraq, Germany only made a financial contribution to the war effort, so-called "check book diplomacy," and people felt a little ashamed about it. Then, German medics were flown to Cambodia, and people called them the "angels of Phnom Penh."

And then, in 1998, when the Greens wanted to join the government, the party's military affairs coordinator, Angelika Beer, accosted some of the most hard-core members of the party - that is, those who would prefer to do mandatory civilian volunteer work than to serve in the military - and brought them into line, telling them: Those are now your soldiers, and those are now your tanks.

During the war in Kosovo, then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer spoke of how Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was planning a new Auschwitz that could only be prevented through war. "Auschwitz" is a highly charged word in Germany. Despite the fact that it appeared to be a violation of international law, Fischer and other politicians argued that joining the war effort there was both justified and necessary. It was called a "humanitarian intervention," and anyone opposed to it was quickly labelled an ally of the Serbian murderers.

There was an illusion that you could tame this beast called war; that you could count on the fact that it would only bite when you wanted it to. But the beast could only be unleashed when there was a monstrous enemy to be dealt with.

Auschwitz was the name Fischer chose to give the monster in Kosovo. The atomic bomb is the monster identified by Angela Merkel in Afghanistan. As she sees it, anyone calling for German troops to withdraw from Afghanistan has to reckon with the fact that doing so will allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of Islamists.

The Slippery Slope of Militarism

Merkel has to say things like that because there has been so little success there. After eight years of war, 140,000 soldiers from 43 countries have been unable to deal with 25,000 Taliban fighters. Meanwhile, the number of civilians who die there each year has risen to 2,000 - and the figure keeps growing.

What's going on there is war, and at least we are now calling it what it really is, rather than just a reconstruction and humanitarian assistance mission. But there is still silence about the real dirty truth of war. Even so, the truth breaks through for fleeting moments, such as in the black-and-white video from Iraq recently brought to the world's attention by Wikileaks. The video showed how war can get so out of hand that killing becomes fun. And if there's one thing that military trainers know, it's that war transforms not only soldiers, but also the society they return to.

Reinhold Robbe, the German parliament's military commissioner, is calling on his fellow Germans to feel that they are a part of the war effort. But let's hope they continue to resist.

We do not want this society to get used to war and rediscover heroism, the thrill of the drums and the songs, the pathos and that thing called patriotism, which is sometimes so very similar to its ugly stepbrother, National Socialism.

It's a shame that we have stopped referring to lessons drawn from the last world war, including phrases like "a culture of restraint."

What we should really hope for is a government that is honest and a parliamentary majority that will not only call this war a war, but will also say that it is dirty and wrong. One that admits that it produces people who are maimed in both body and mind, that people will die in vain, and that it is a war that achieves nothing and cannot result in any military gains. One that says that we thought it was a good idea at the time, but it wasn't, so let's get out.

Germans are smarter than their political leaders. People don't want what the government wants. So the government's so-called communication problem looks set to continue. But all the communication in the world will do nothing to change the fact that the dead are dead and that dried blood can no longer flow.

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