Facing Reality in Afghanistan It's Time for Germans to Talk About War

Germans have a difficult relationship with war, for obvious reasons. But the current government's attempts to play down the war in Afghanistan are cowardly. It's time for Germany to face reality and initiate an open debate about the purpose of its mission.

A funeral service was held Friday for three German soldiers killed in Afghanistan: Germany needs to face up to the reality of the war.

A funeral service was held Friday for three German soldiers killed in Afghanistan: Germany needs to face up to the reality of the war.

A Commentary by

The point when the war in Afghanistan began for the Germans can be identified fairly accurately: It was three years ago, when the Taliban infiltrated the region around Kunduz. There were not many of them back then, and they are still not numerous today -- roughly 300 men who could be driven out by a resolute armed force. But the German soldiers have no mandate to do so, which explains why the Americans will soon come to the north and undertake the fight against the Taliban there as well.

For quite some time, the key question has been what the Germans actually can and want to do to help change things for the better in Afghanistan. The answer is that militarily they can do practically nothing. The reason for this is not that their soldiers are poorly trained or that their equipment leaves something to be desired. Germany's military restraint reflects a conscious policy -- one that aims to keep the war in Afghanistan from becoming a political problem back home.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is keeping her distance from the war, even though last Friday she bowed to public pressure and traveled to the northern German town of Selsingen to attend the funeral of three soldiers who died in an ambush in Kunduz on Good Friday. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is conspicuous by his deafening silence. Thus, when the German defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, said that there is a situation in Afghanistan that would colloquially be called war, his choice of words was perceived as an act of liberation.

Yes, there is a state of war in Afghanistan, that poor and mistreated country in the world's most dangerous region. War is terrible. War kills civilians, including women and children. War also often changes the soldiers that fight it. There is no such thing as a just war because unjust things always happen, often accompanied by atrocities and barbarity. Yet asymmetrical wars against terrorists and insurgents are clearly an integral part of the 21st century. And sometimes, despite all reservations, fighting a war is the right thing to do.

Peripheral Role

America's war in Afghanistan was at least understandable in the wake of 9/11, and it was also right for NATO to invoke the principle of collective defense. Since the United Nations had issued a mandate for Afghanistan, Germany took part in the mission, which was intended to secure the country's reconstruction, with a clear conscience.

Now war has broken out again and the Germans are playing a peripheral role in the conflict. They are not consulted by the US when the strategy changes. They are presented with a fait accompli because they don't carry political weight, neither in the confrontation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai nor in negotiations with the Taliban. That is rather meager for a country that would like to see itself as an important mid-sized power. It is a good thing that Germany, mindful of its 20th century past, has a difficult relationship with war. Its governments, however, tend either towards dramatic exaggeration -- as with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who used Auschwitz as an argument for the Kosovo war -- or towards dramatic downplaying, as Merkel and Westerwelle are currently doing.

The alternative is a middle course, one that is pragmatic and cool-headed, exactly as Merkel normally likes to do things. That would necessarily involve a public debate about the purpose and benefits of a war in Afghanistan -- the kind of thing that is good for democracy and can also act to calm the political waters. And despite what the chancellor appears to believe, the Germans are perfectly capable of conducting this debate.

No More Fleeing from Reality

Today it is simultaneously more difficult and easier to justify the war in Afghanistan. It is more difficult because many illusions concerning democracy and stability in the country have been shattered. At the same time, it is easier because there is general agreement that Afghanistan should not fall again into the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaida. An even worse scenario would be if Pakistan, a nuclear power, were to be left at the mercy of extremists.

The fact that Germany's participation will always have limits is unavoidable. But there is an alternative to the half-heartedness practiced at home. It is not enough for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend a funeral now and then, when it is unavoidable. She has to take political responsibility. This starts with the simple acknowledgment that Germany is conducting a war in Afghanistan that the chancellor feels is right.

The long phase of understatement is over. The distant war has come home to Germany, and, after the period of fleeing from reality, it is now high time that Germans talk openly about war and death.


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