The international mission in Afghanistan, the German government is convinced, will see significant changes in coming years. On Wednesday, the cabinet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed on a mandate that would extend by one year the presence of Bundeswehr troops operating in Afghanistan. "Overall, the international engagement in Afghanistan will undergo decisive transformation in the years 2011 to 2014," the seven-page document approved by the cabinet reads hopefully.
That change, the document makes clear, is to come about as a result of a renewed focus on the training of "effective Afghan security personnel as a prerequisite for a step-by-step handing over of security responsibilities" to the Afghans and a resulting reduction of the international military presence.
Hope, in other words, is in no short supply. A clear description of the realities on the ground in Afghanistan, however, is avoided. Nowhere in the document is the word "war" mentioned. The Taliban likewise don't make an appearance.
The extension of the mandate, which still must be approved by the German parliament, would allow for the continued presence of 5,000 German troops in Afghanistan in addition to a 350 emergency reserve at the ready in Germany. The vote came after weeks of cabinet infighting as to when the Bundeswehr might be withdrawn. Prior to Christmas, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave a speech in an apparent effort to capitalize on the fact that some 70 percent of Germans are now opposed to the mission in Afghanistan. "Today," Westerwelle said, "I can say with sufficient confidence that we will be able to reduce our Bundeswehr contingent in Afghanistan for the first time at the end of 2011."
Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg responded almost immediately, saying that, while he was in favor of withdrawal sooner rather than later, he was opposed to setting a firm date. Any such decision, he said, had to be dependent on the situation Afghanistan.
A 'Political Solution'
The document approved by Merkel's cabinet on Wednesday made reference to the debate, insisting that the government was confident that a reduction of German troops could begin in 2011, but indicated that the situation in Afghanistan would ultimately be decisive.
Nevertheless, the document avoids outlining exactly what that situation looks like. Whereas the paper is careful to emphasize military training and the provision of equipment to Afghan security personnel, it fails to mention the increasing number of combat missions against the Taliban currently undertaken by German troops. The document speaks of supporting the Afghan government, but does not speak of the fact that increased patrols against Taliban strongholds have become a key part of Germany's new strategy in Afghanistan.
Instead, the mandate emphasizes the search for a "political solution" to the conflict and a "process of understanding and political reconciliation with the insurgency." Some €1.5 billion has been budgeted for the mission for the time period from the end of this month to the end of January 2012.
Guttenberg on Wednesday emphasized once again that any withdrawal of German troops would depend on the security situation in Afghanistan. Referring to a series of regional votes in Germany this year, he said "it would be irresponsible to risk the safety of German soldiers for the sake of elections."
The mandate must now be approved by the German parliament. Despite earlier insistence on the inclusion of a concrete withdrawal date, the opposition Social Democrats have indicated their support, thus joining Merkel's Christian Democrats and her coalition partners, the business-friendly Free Democrats. The Green Party is also expected to back the extension.