First it was about shoes and then it was about a deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Twice within four days, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was the focus of debate in Berlin. And, once again, it came with Guttenberg's accustomed mix of show and politics.
A week before Christmas, he attended a reception following a television program promoting a children's charity. The men wore suits and ties and the women were dressed in evening attire. But Guttenberg arrived in a blue windbreaker, khaki-colored pants and desert boots. He had just come from Kunduz, where he and Chancellor Angela Merkel had visited German soldiers. It would have been easy to change for the reception, but Guttenberg wanted to cut a military figure -- the man returning from the war zone. The stunt set tongues wagging in Berlin.
On Tuesday, the ARD television network reported that Guttenberg was against setting a date for the withdrawal from Afghanistan that didn't take into consideration the situation there. It sounded like criticism of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who a short time before had said he was in favor of beginning the withdrawal in 2011. "Guttenberg Chides FDP Chairman," wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The comment once again got Berlin talking.
Guttenberg, like no other politician, is able to satisfy the public's interest in gossip, in show and in politics. Westerwelle, to be sure, is no different -- he too loves grand appearances and mixing his private and political lives. The difference is that Westerwelle has not been favored by fortune. While Guttenberg is the star of the hour, Westerwelle is fighting for his political survival.
'If the Situation Permits'
The issue that the foreign minister hopes will save him is Afghanistan, the most sensitive subject in German politics. Some 70 percent of German citizens are opposed to the further deployment of the German military in Afghanistan. As such, calling for a rapid withdrawal is an easy way to boost one's popularity ratings, which is precisely what Westerwelle hopes to do. In his speech on Afghanistan last Thursday, he gave the impression that withdrawal will begin in late 2011 and the entire mission will be over by 2014. Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, is scheduled to vote on extending the country's participation in Afghanistan by one year in a January vote.
Guttenberg, likewise no stranger to populism, has adopted a more unpopular position. He told SPIEGEL on Wednesday that a withdrawal would only be an option "if the situation permits." He made it clear that the date is not relevant. "The situation is the decisive factor," he said.
In the end, of course, any troop mandate will likely include words to the effect that withdrawal will depend on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. But emphasis is important, and the ministers have chosen two different ones. For Guttenberg, realities in Afghanistan are more important than setting a withdrawal date. For Westerwelle, it is the reverse.
And Merkel? As usual, she is trying to split the difference. She too has said that the situation in Afghanistan is important in determining whether or not the Bundeswehr should withdraw. But she has also indicated that she likes the idea of beginning the withdrawal in 2011 -- not least because language to that effect in the new mandate would likely bring the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) on board. Merkel is unwilling to be responsible for the operation in Afghanistan without the support of the SPD.
Putting a Stop to the Bleeding
Germany's mission in Afghanistan, in other words, has become caught up in the maelstrom of domestic politics. It is the pawn in rivalries between the country's largest political parties and between two government ministers -- hardly an ideal situation for an issue that involves the lives of both German troops and Afghan citizens.
Forty-five German soldiers have already died in Afghanistan. To be sure, withdrawal would put a stop to German bleeding in the country, but the bad news would almost certainly continue. The Bundeswehr is responsible for northern Afghanistan, where it has managed to ensure living conditions have remained relatively bearable. This could end if the Afghan army is unable to prevail against the Taliban. This is what Guttenberg means when he speaks of conditions on the ground: Can the government in Kabul guarantee security and order?
Defense Minister Guttenberg has strong allies in his position. Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in German parliament, says, for example, "it is okay to provide a time frame for a withdrawal, but you have to make it clear that everything depends on how the military and political situations develop." If the situation hasn't improved by 2014, says Polenz, the Bundeswehr will have to remain in Afghanistan.
Omid Nouripour, the Green Party's defense policy spokesman, holds a similar view: "We cannot specify a definitive final date for the withdrawal at this point. We have to do everything possible to get out by 2014, but we don't know at this point whether this would be responsible." Unfortunately the debate over the withdrawal date, says Nouripour, is primarily motivated by domestic political considerations and loses sight of the situation of the people in Afghanistan.
'A Very Dangerous Game'
Harald Kujat, the former head of Germany's Bundeswehr and chairman of the NATO military committee, has no patience for capers motivated by domestic politics. He is particularly critical of Westerwelle, and says "I had always hoped that this would not turn into a contest, but that hope seems to have been in vain." As soon as the withdrawal begins, says Kujat, the risk will increase for those remaining behind. In this sense, he adds, it is "a very dangerous game that is being played here."
The majority of the SPD, for its part, firmly supports Westerwelle's position. At the same time, however, the foreign minister is also putting the SPD under pressure. By portraying himself as a champion of withdrawal, he is forcing the Social Democrats to outdo him should they wish to be seen as the party of peace.
Although the SPD will likely approve the new mandate once again, the party is already threatening to withhold its support in 2012. "The federal government must present withdrawal plans during the course of the year, and the withdrawal has to begin during the year," says senior party member Martin Schulz. "If it doesn't do this, it will be bad for Germany, first of all, and, second, it will be on its own starting in 2012. The SPD would not vote for a new mandate at that point."
What Would the US Do?
As a first step, Schulz says: "The flexible reserve of 350 soldiers was never used. That's why it should be dissolved as quickly as possible." In this way, at least these soldiers would be "withdrawn," even though they were never actually deployed in the first place.
In this debate, German politicians are, to some extent, pulling the wool over the eyes of the public. They talk about situations and withdrawal, but what exactly these words mean isn't clear. There is, in fact, no objective picture of the situation in Afghanistan. There is progress and there are setbacks. There are many different situations, depending on the region and the month.
The official picture painted by the German government can be found in the "Afghanistan Progress Report," which states that the security situation has steadily deteriorated since 2006. According to the report, the training of Afghan security forces is now up and running and suggests that the trend could turn around in the coming year. The problems cited in the report are corruption, official arbitrariness and the lack of will within the Kabul government to develop a functioning administration.
The statements on the withdrawal of German troops remain cautious. According to the progress report, NATO continues to support the Afghan government's goal of assuming responsibility for security in the entire country by the end of 2014.
A 'Clear Outlook'
The report does not hold out the prospect of a withdrawal of German troops until 2012. It states that the goal of the German government is to begin the transition process next year in the zone for which the Germans are responsible. "This will not lead to a withdrawal of soldiers immediately, but it will offer a clear outlook for 2012 and beyond."
Westerwelle was scheduled to hold a speech on this report last Thursday. He telephoned with Guttenberg in the morning to discuss the statement. The speech had not yet been finalized -- Westerwelle and his Afghanistan envoy Michael Steiner wanted to fine-tune the text until the last minute. Guttenberg, for his part, wanted to be sure that Westerwelle would convey the message that had been agreed to at the Chancellery.
At issue was the question of whether the foreign minister should announce a troop withdrawal beginning in 2011, which Westerwelle was determined to do. Guttenberg was skeptical, fearing that the government would not be able to back away from the number once it had been mentioned. The ministers agreed that Westerwelle would name a possible withdrawal date, but that he would make it clear that troops would only be pulled out if certain conditions were met.
Still, the speech, when it was delivered, caught Guttenberg off guard. "Today 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," the foreign minister said. It sounded like a pledge.
Invitation to the Taliban
But Westerwelle could, however, claim to have adhered to the government line -- formally at least. As promised, he mentioned the conditions, but only as an afterthought. The speech's message was clear: The withdrawal begins next year.
The press, not surprisingly, jumped on Guttenberg's apparent response. In an interview with ARD broadcast after Westerwelle's speech, the defense minister said: "Any ambition should be tempered by responsibility. Neither I nor the federal government can take the responsibility for endangering the remaining soldiers, merely to prove something one has claimed." There is no doubt that Guttenberg had Westerwelle in mind when making the comments -- but the interview had actually been given to ARD before Westerwelle's speech.
Still, the two are at odds -- and with good reason. Any fixed withdrawal date is also an invitation to the Taliban to keep a low profile until the occupiers have left. Then they will be able to gather their strength and take the fight to the government of President Hamid Karzai.As such, says former NATO Commander Egon Ramms, withdrawal dates are not helpful to the Afghan people.
But the debate over withdrawal dates is also heating up in the United States. And Germany is dependent on its trans-Atlantic allies. It is inconceivable that the Bundeswehr will still be holding down the fort when the Americans are gone.
Opinion polls show that many of US President Barack Obama's supporters feel that it is pointless to continue the fight in Afghanistan. Even the Republicans, traditionally supportive of war, have become more pensive when it comes to Afghanistan. The year 2014 has been mentioned in Washington as a new target date for withdrawal.
Obama openly addressed this date at the NATO summit in Lisbon in late November. He left a small back door open, saying that troop withdrawal would, of course, depend on the situation. Vice President Joe Biden, though, went even further in a recent television interview when he said that all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by late 2014, "come hell or high water."
Withdrawal does not mean, however, that no American forces would remain in Afghanistan. US forces have already officially withdrawn from Iraq, and yet there are still about 50,000 soldiers stationed in the country. Is that a withdrawal?
The Chancellery in Berlin imagines a similar solution. Merkel is not convinced that Karzai is capable of effectively governing Afghanistan. Nevertheless, she wants to bring the German mission to an end in 2014. More specifically, this means that the mission would end in its current form.
The solution would involve keeping some of the soldiers in Afghanistan, but changing their mandate. The Bundeswehr would no longer engage in direct combat with the Taliban, but would remain in its camps. It would only continue its training of the Afghan national army.
All of this suggests that it is questionable whether the German mission will truly come to an end in 2014, at least if the current Christian Democratic and Free Democratic coalition government survives the 2013 election. Guttenberg could very well need his desert boots for some time to come.
By Ralf Beste, Christoph Hickmann, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Ralf Neukirch and Gregor-Peter Schmitz