Germany Debates Afghanistan Merkel Government Split ahead of Mandate Vote

Most in Germany would like to see their troops return home from Afghanistan as soon as possible -- and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has adopted the position as his own. But many in the government of Chancellor Merkel disagree and Westerwelle has powerful detractors.


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."

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