Letter from Berlin Afghanistan Divides Germany's Social Democrats
Support is waning in Germany's Social Democratic Party for the country's deployment in Afghanistan. Keen to spin the party as one of peace, the party's base is growing restless. Will it have implications for Chancellor Merkel's government?
Social Democratic floor leader Peter Struck says the unilateral withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan would be impossible.
The vote signified growing unrest in Germany about the country's six-year deployment in Afghanistan. At almost every recent SPD party event, questions have persisted about the mission. What is Germany doing in Afghanistan? Why is Germany waging America's war? And why is it that Germany can only afford 20 million ($26.5 million) per year in development aid to Afghanistan when the cost of sending Tornado jets to the country for only six months will cost a whopping 35 million?
Party members have openly expressed their growing dissatisfaction with the uncertain aims in Afghanistan, saying they want SPD policy to reflect its identity as a party of peace. It's a sentiment that evokes former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's adamant stance against the Iraq war. Though the economic reforms Schröder pushed through remain deeply unpopular, broad support remains within the party base for his anti-war stance and for his having stood up to the United States.
At one party meeting, Renate Schmidt, a former cabinet minister in Schröder's government, warned that Germany "threatened to slide into a second Vietnam." And the party's foreign policy expert, Rolf Mützenich, said Germany had "fallen to a low level in Afghanistan." Slogans like "We are the party of peace," can be heard in many quarters.
And the unrest isn't just limited to the left-wing fringes of the party -- it has also arrived at its core, even within the party's parliamentary faction. During the vote two weeks ago, 69 SPD members -- close to one-third of its representatives in the German parliament, the Bundestag, voted against deploying the jets.
German public wants troop withdrawal
While this alone isn't enough to endanger Merkel's government, it has unsettled SPD leaders and it has left them uncertain about how to respond.
German support for the Afghanistan mission is falling.
As part of its efforts to promote the SPD as a peacenik party, members of the base want party leadership to lay out a clear plan for the future of Germany's deployment in Afghanistan and to express decisive opposition to the American plans to install parts of its new missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. It's a project that Schröder recently criticized as "politically dangerous," a "counterproductive attempt to encircle Russia that in no way represents European interests."
The issue is creating a dilemma for the Social Democrats. If the SPD's leadership gives in to pressure from the party base, it could severely weaken Social Democratic members of Merkel's cabinet -- including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has already been weakened by investigations into German intelligence cooperation with the US during the Iraq war as well as efforts to keep wrongly accused terror suspect Murat Kurnaz, a longtime inmate at Guantanamo, from returning to Germany. An open conflict with the Christian Democrats could bring a quick end to the fragile coalition government and raise serious questions about the SPD's ability to govern.
An identity issue
At the same time, the idea of positioning itself as a peace party remains an attractive prospect -- especially in the wake of controversial reforms that have seen the center-left SPD help push through such unpopular measures like a hike in the retirement age by two years. "This is an issue of identity for us," says SPD floor leader Peter Struck, who expressed concern that the "dissatisfaction within the party and population regarding the Afghanistan deployment is growing."
Still, party strategists have yet to come up with any solutions that would meet the demands of its Christian Democratic partners and Germany's NATO commitments while at the same time keeping the party core happy. The only certainty within the party is that unilateral withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan would be impossible.
"Even the peaceniks know that," says Struck.
SPD floor leader Peter Struck discusses the "Tornado" vote in German parliament with his conservative counterpart Volker Kauder. A number of SPD delegates elected not to support the mission.
There is also displeasure in the party base over Germany's development aid in Afghanistan, which many argue is lacking. In 2006, the country provided 80 million in bilateral aid. Although that figure will be increased by 20 million this year, critics argue that is will do little to significantly change life in a country that is almost twice as big as Germany.
"We're going to have to inject more money," Struck says. Meanwhile, the party's defense expert, Jörn Thiessen, says the future focus of the German deployment in Afghanistan must "clearly lie in civilian development."
- Part 1: Afghanistan Divides Germany's Social Democrats
- Part 2: Part II: A Political Tinderbox