Nightmare in Afghanistan: Merkel Visits Troops Amid Tense Atmosphere

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Following this weekend's massacre of 16 civilians the situation intensified in Afghanistan as Angela Merkel arrived for a surprise visit to Germany's Bundeswehr troops deployed there. The German chancellor claims she wants to stick to the planned 2014 withdrawal, but her statements in the region left room for doubts. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is shown a flak jacket as she talks to soldiers during her visit at Camp Marmal on Monday in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Zoom
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is shown a flak jacket as she talks to soldiers during her visit at Camp Marmal on Monday in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.

It is rare that the German chancellor says something and is then forced just a short time later to clarify what it is that she actually meant. But on Monday, the subject at hand was a controversial one -- the German armed forces deployment in Afghanistan. In these tense times in the region, a misunderstanding can quickly snowball into an uncomfortable debate.

That quickly became apparent to Angela Merkel as she arrived under the highest security precautions for a one-day visit to the German Bundeswehr base at Mazar-e-Sharif. Shortly after her arrival, the chancellor expressed her doubts about developments in the crisis-plagued country. Yes, there has been progress, the chancellor said, but not enough to let her safely say, "We will succeed by 2013/2014. The will is there, we want to succeed and we are working on it."

The date 2014 has been set for the withdrawal of the international security forces currently present in Afghanistan. But what did Merkel mean when she said that the will is there? Is that all? Is the chancellor questioning a withdrawal plan that has been agreed to by the international community? That's certainly how her words are being interpreted by German news agencies and the international media. The independent German Armed Forces Association welcomed the chancellor's words, praising her new reflectiveness. For their part, the Green Party demanded talks over a possible re-orientation of Germany's Afghanistan strategy. Even German Defense Minister Thomas De Maizière expressed initial surprise as he learned of the news during a trip to Uzbekistan.

Merkel quickly saw a need to clarify her statements, and before she boarded her plane to return to Germany, she said, "2014 is the withdrawal date." And it will remain so.

It is possible that the chancellor just didn't express herself clearly. She may well have meant that the existing mandate for the Bundeswehr mission remains as it is -- that the current 4,800 German soldiers in the country are to withdraw by 2014 as long as the security situation permits. But the confusion over Merkel's comments also demonstrates just how great the uncertainty over Afghanistan has become -- among the public, the troops and in political circles. Will it still be possible to bring the Afghanistan deployment to an at least somewhat conciliatory end? An end that will not be marked by chaos, civil war and, in the worst case scenario, the Taliban's return to power?

A 'Heinous Crime'

Over the weekend, reports came in that a US soldier had gone on a shooting rampage and killed 16 Afghan civilians. The slayings have dramatically increased uncertainty in the region. In the wake of the massacre in Najiban, Merkel condemned the "heinous crime" during a telephone call with Afghan President Hamid Karzai from the German base. Defense Minister de Maizière spoke of a "terrible, extremely brutal and shocking" isolated case. US President Barack Obama and NATO have pledged a complete investigation.

It's an attempt to contain the damage -- and it is needed. The situation in Afghanistan is more tense than it has been for some time now. An incident just two weeks ago showed just how quickly public sentiment can shift. More than 30 Afghans and three American soldiers died during riots and gunfights after copies of the Koran were accidentally burned at a US military base. Following this weekend's massacre, the provincial council of Kandahar has stated that "the people are in an aggressive mood now." The national parliament in Kabul has also issued a strong warning for the international troops. "Wolse Jirga (the lower house of parliament) condemns this brutal and inhuman act of American soldiers," the statement said. "The tolerance of Afghan people against the imprudence of foreign troops has (been) exhausted." The Taliban also vowed to avenge the deaths.

The West is currently working to get the more moderate elements within the Taliban to the negotiating table. This weekend's events, however, could boost the radical faction of the Taliban which has rejected any talks with the enemy. Concerns over a new outbreak of violence are mounting -- as is the worry that the international community will have to face further setbacks in the stabilization of Afghanistan. "Bad incidents like this are very damaging and they throw back our efforts towards peace and balance," said Philipp Missfelder, the foreign affairs spokesperson in parliament for Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party. "It takes months and months to build the trust of the local populations, and then something like this happens and it's gone, literally overnight," Seth G. Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation with experience in Afghanistan, told the New York Times.

Fears of a Domino Effect

The countries participating in the NATO-led ISAF security force in Afghanistan appear committed to sticking with their jointly planned withdrawal. But as much as top politicians like Obama and Merkel have insisted that all combat troops would withdraw by 2014, they have done very little to plan for this date. The Bundeswehr, for example, is more or less only reducing its contingent of soldiers on paper over the next year. Besides eliminating emergency reserves that have hardly been utilized so far, the Bundeswehr only plans to remove a few dozen soldiers.

How the withdrawal will actually proceed is still largely unknown. For weeks now, experts and advisors close to German Defense Minister de Maizière have been warning that the entire logistics of the withdrawal will be a mammoth undertaking that could extend far beyond 2014 and would still require the deployment of hundreds of soldiers. That's why de Maizière is already speaking of the possibility of a second mandate for the Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan in order to deal with the logistics of the withdrawal. In Germany, the mandate for Bundeswehr deployments abroad must be approved by parliament.

A greater factor, though, will be what diplomats like to cloak with the words "situation on the ground." And this it is precisely this "situation on the ground" that all participants, including those in the German government, fear could worsen massively in the coming months. Despite considerable and careful planning, it is still uncertain how military and government officials will deal with a possible dramatic escalation of the situation in Afghanistan. In the worst case scenario, de Maizière fears, individual countries that are engaged in Afghanistan could push for the pullout to come sooner. This could lead to a domino effect in which all the countries make a hasty and stumbling retreat to the exit.

It is precisely this type of disorderly withdrawal that the German government wants, by all means, to prevent. "In together, out together," is the motto often expressed in English in Berlin these days. "We agree that we have quite a bit to do by then," Merkel has said.

Those words from the chancellor are unlikely to be misunderstood.

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