Last week's Afghan air strike has revived a debate in Germany about the deeply unpopular mission in Afghanistan -- a majority of Germans oppose it, polls regularly show -- at an uncomfortable time for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats they share power with. Less than three weeks before the Sept. 27 election, neither party can credibly promise a swift withdrawal of troops or even set a deadline. Merkel reaffirmed on Tuesday that Berlin is committed to protecting democracy and reconstruction in Afghanistan, and is bound by international alliances and will not pull its troops out unilaterally.
But she did stress that Germany, France and Britain want a conference by the end of the year to map out the future of the international mission in Afghanistan and provide an outlook for a withdrawal.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung has come in for intense criticism from opposition politicians and media commentators for ruling out too soon that there were civilian casualties in Friday's air strike. He has had to backtrack since the weekend.
Commentators want the government to stop pretending that Germany's 4,200 troops in Afghanistan are focused on civil reconstruction, and to admit that they're in a war zone. Above all, they want the German government to come up with a clear, concrete plan that will eventually allow German forces to withdraw.
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"An election campaign must give account and provide an outlook regarding the most fundamental political issues of the day, and that includes the German army's mission in Afghanistan. Until now the German government has dodged this. But now the 500 pound bombs the Americans launched at Germany's request have bombed Afghanistan into the German election campaign."
"As things stand at the moment, civilian reconstruction aid would collapse immediately without military protection. That makes demands for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal as naïve and unrealistic as the claim that the mission amounted to little more than robust development aid."
"Germany muddled its way into a war and thought it could muddle its way through and back out -- without clarity or truth, without a tangible view of the mission and its purpose, without a fundamental debate in parliament and in the public. Without clearly stating the fact, Germany has become a warring party under US command."
"The German voters now expect as much clarity as possible. Everyone knows the soldiers can't stay for ever. Just stating that doesn't amount to a policy, it's fundamental self-evident. This isn't about whether the troops will be withdrawn, it's about how and when."
"Steinmeier talked about working out plans for a withdrawal. He should come up with one himself and present it. And then negotiations will be needed, including with the Taliban -- war ends with negotiations. That is a change in strategy. But a responsible withdrawal plan isn't possible without that admission. That's a fundamental decision that will needed to be voted on in the election."
Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"It's totally wrong and intolerable in a democracy for a defense minister to stand in front of a camera a few hours after an air strike and to state there were no civilian casualties, and three days later after receiving a lot of information to simply say he doesn't have any more to say."
"When German soldiers are embroiled in a war the population has a right to be told by those responsible what is happening in their name."
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Franz Josef's Jung's tactic of placating, covering up and concealing is increasing public opposition to the mission. How are people supposed to support the mission if they are constantly told that our boys are mainly just riding around on patrol, building hospitals and inaugurating schools?"
Center-left Der Tagesspiegel writes:
"Franz Josef Jung opted for a purely administrative attitude. He turned a terrible event into a bureaucratic act and he insists he took the right action. The man who said we must win the hearts of the Afghans needed days to utter a word of regret. There's a lack of posture and diplomatic skill. There's a similar lack of posture in people who are seizing on this incident to demand a withdrawal and think they can set a firm date for that . It's right to set goals and to put oneself under pressure. But this isn't a football league. The Americans only started talking about withdrawing from Iraq when their military commanders said the country would be able to cope. Afghanistan is still far removed from such an analysis, whether it's right or wrong. German politicians must state clearly what they want in this election campaign."
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