On Friday, Taliban fighters ambushed and killed three German soldiers in Afghanistan, leaving eight wounded, four severely. In a separate incident, German Bundeswehr troops killed six Afghan soldiers in the northern Afghan region of Kunduz. The incidents have added new fodder to a public debate over Germany's role in Afghanistan that has intensified following the killing of civilians in a bombing strike against the Taliban in September.
Over the weekend, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg offered an assertive response to the tragic developments. Speaking to the press on Sunday, the defense minister addressed the incidents, rejecting criticism at home that German troops had been underequipped and ill-prepared for responding to the Taliban ambush, and apologizing for the accidental killing of six Afghan soldiers in the "friendly fire" incident. He said Germany would conduct an investigation into the deaths.
The incidents come on the heels of an increasingly tense situation between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan's Western allies. On Thursday, the Afghan leader accused the United Nations and the international community of helping to perpetrate "vast fraud" during last year's presidential elections. Karzai eventually landed a second term as president, but only after his ony challenger dropped out of a second-round of voting. Following massive voter fraud committed on his behalf, Karzai agreed to a second-round vote under international pressure, but his challenger dropped out, saying a fair vote was impossible. Apparently still smarting from the experience, Karzai fought back last week, accusing the West of seeking to weaken his government. "They want parliament to be weakened and battered, and for me to be an ineffective president and for parliament to be ineffective," he said.
Even though Karzai didn't mention the United States by name, the American government described the speech as "genuinely troubling." Karzai attempted to control the damage by calling Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but then he turned around and expressed repeated anti-NATO sentiments at a private meeting of around 70 Afghan politicians on Saturday, according to the Wall Street Journal. He also accused the US of interfering in Afghan affairs and said the Taliban insurgency would become a legitimate resistance movement if the meddling doesn't stop, the paper reported.
On Tuesday, German commentators express their concern over the recent turn of events in Afghanistan. Some call for further analysis of troop conduct in Afghanistan, asking again: Is this war or not? Others attempt to explain Karzai's inflammatory comments, predicting what they might mean for Afghanistan's future and the planned Western withdrawal. All seem to agree that Karzai's words are a reflection of the precarious political reality in his country.
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Karzai is clearly determined to become his own man. Not Washington's man in the Hindu Kush. He wants to be the president of every Afghan. This is so logical that it has surprised everyone in the West -- even though Karzai has been indicating that this is his strategy for some time now."
"Even before the presidential elections, Washington had accused Karzai of corruption -- even though the US was unable to present any realistic alternative to his leadership. Karzai has nothing left to lose, and that is why all threats against him are empty now. In the future Afghanistan will either have a government run by the Taliban -- or a government run by the Taliban and (Afghan warlord) Hekmatyar, with Karzai at the top. The latter is what Karzai would prefer."
"What this means for democracy and human rights -- let alone women's rights -- is unthinkable. But it is not as if the international community has been particularly interested in this issue over the past year -- even though that was the justification for war in the Hindu Kush in the first place. The team around US President Barack Obama was hoping for an 'honorable withdrawal.' But this is only possible if promises are honored. Karzai, however, seems determined to rain on that parade."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Anyone who did not want to accept reality had Karzai's view of events hammered home to them over the Easter weekend. The Afghan president does not see himself as a puppet of the West. And in the future he will not hesitate to put his own interests ahead of those of his partners."
"For the Americans and their allies, Karzai's unconcealed verbal attacks have caused political discomfort. For it was they who put Karzai in office and, despite obvious vote rigging, it was them supporting him over the past year. Karzai himself is no innocent lamb. In light of the fact that the NATO troops won't be in his country for too much longer, it is understandable that he is making provisions for his own survival."
"It would be a mistake to laugh at Karzai's tirade as the ranting of a madman. The Afghan president is under pressure in his own country. His power is limited and he is beholden to his own tribe. But without him it would be even more difficult to win any offensive against the Taliban. Now that it lacks any real means to pressure Karzai, the West must be prepared for more nasty surprises. It is not unforeseeable that he will enter into a relationship with some part of the Taliban in the near future. And if the NATO states really want their citizens to understand how this could possibly happen, then they may as well start explaining now: And within their own ranks first."
The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Did Hamid Karzai just lose his nerve? Or are his latest declarations a sign of the deepening crisis in relations between Afghanistan and those with a UN mandate to help him stabilize the Hindu Kush? He has called foreign troops, 'interlopers,' blaming the disputed election results of last year on international interference."
"The fact that Karzai said this in front of the most senior Western commander, US General Stanley McChrystal, is noteworthy. It is probable that Karzai -- in the face of the difficulties of his office and the little progress made -- has inadvertently shown just how nervous he really is. It's even more likely that he wanted to point out what has been clear from the very beginning of this conflict: The majority of Afghanis don't want the Taliban to return to power. But neither do they want foreigners -- even those who are conducting themselves like gentlemen -- to destroy too much of their proud and traditional tribal communities."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The road to reality is paved with death. It wasn't so long ago that one German defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, insisted that Afghanistan was a 'stabilization mission' for the German armed forces. Then, in September 2009, dozens of people were killed in a bombing on a river in Kunduz ordered by a German colonel. This led new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to come up with the phrase: 'Conditions similar to war.' Three dead Germans and six dead Afghans, killed by German armed forces, later and Guttenberg is saying one can speak colloquially, at least, of 'war.'"
"Reductions in the number of foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan will begin in 2011. This promise matches reality about as well as trying to put a beer bottle cap on a coffee cup. And Guttenberg's words of 'war' only make this disparity more marked."
"If the German Bundeswehr is at war, then the debate should be not only about pulling out, but also about what the military is allowed to do until then. Should the military be limited to defending itself -- or should it allowed to attack? How many victims are we willing to accept -- from among German soldiers, from among Afghan soldiers and in extreme cases, from among the civilian population? Or will the majority in the German parliament and in the German public no longer support war under these circumstances?"
The conservative newspaper Die Welt writes:
"Over the Easter weekend, Germany discovered -- in a disturbing way -- what officials in the US must have known ever since their efforts in the Iraq War in 2003: A combat operation in the Middle East against a strong-willed opponent is an assignment whose scope can seldom be fully comprehended."
"On Good Friday, the US Air Force declined to attack entrenched Taliban fighters -- even though, in this case, German soldiers were truly in danger. Under no circumstances should any civilians get killed as they were in the Sept. 4 air attack in Kunduz, the thinking went. But the Taliban can also tell when their enemies are hesitating -- and Karzai can sense it too."
"Forty years ago, during the Vietnam War, there was a similar situation: With the Tet offensive against the US, the Viet Cong profited from a similarly hesitant atmosphere. German skeptics see Vietnam as an ominous example. Pull out before it's too late, they say. But those fighting in Afghanistan are not like the Vietnamese communist nationalists who wanted to unite their nation, and nothing less. The Islamic fanatics, from all over the globe, fighting in Afghanistan would consider the withdrawal of NATO a first, decisive victory over the Christian West. And as grim as the situation is, an enemy like this is only emboldened by hesitation."
-- Cathrin Schaer
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