Letter from Berlin Rising Star Guttenberg Embraces Difficult Defense Job

It hasn't taken long for German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to make a mark in his new job. From referring to the Afghanistan mission as a "war" to announcing a slight increase in troop numbers, he has gained the support of the military. Back home, though, challenges await.
Von Siobhán Dowling
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in Afghanistan.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in Afghanistan.

Foto: Anja Niedringhaus/ AP

When Germany's new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg visited troops at the military base of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan on Thursday evening he was feted more as a pop star than a visiting politician. Well into the night the young Bavarian aristocrat signed autographs and posed for group photos as soldiers responded with enthusiasm to Guttenberg's very different approach.

The 37-year-old Guttenberg has been barely out of the headlines since he became Germany's youngest ever defense minister just over two weeks ago. The country's most popular politician, he has dramatically raised the profile of Germany's mission in Afghanistan, breaking taboos about how the deployment is described, pledging solidarity with the troops and then embarking on the surprise visit to the country on Thursday.

His straight-talking manner, confidence and poise are in stark contrast to the lackluster and often bungling impression made by his predecessor Franz Josef Jung. When it comes to the optics then Chancellor Angela Merkel's choice of Guttenberg to take over the defense portofolio seems to be a remarkably shrewd move. However, it remains to be seen if this will be a change of style or substance when it comes to Germany's increasingly difficult mission in Afghanistan.

Germany has around 4,300 soldiers stationed the country as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. On Friday Guttenberg announced that he will send another company of 120 soldiers to the north of the country in January, bringing the overall number of German military personnel in the country close to the maximum allowed by parliament.

Unpopular Mission

While Germany has the third largest contingent of foreign troops in the country after the US and the UK, Berlin's allies have often berated Germany for staying in what had been the relatively stable north of the country, while they suffered heavy casualties battling a resurgent Taliban in the south. Yet the domestic unpopularity of the mission makes it almost impossible to comply with requests to put more soldiers on the front lines.

Two-thirds of Germans oppose the country's almost eight-year long involvement in Afghanistan, although the mission is backed by all of the political parties, apart from the far-left Left Party. If anything, recent events have eroded public support even further with an airstrike involving a German officer most likely having led to civilian deaths compounded by the fiasco of the Afghan presidential elections.

Nevertheless Guttenberg seems intent on raising the profile of Germany's mission rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Since taking office two weeks ago he has single-handedly overturned years of government efforts to present Germany's involvement in the ISAF mission as a kind of military led school-building exercise. The public have never bought this line. A war by any other name is still a war.

Guttenberg has recognized that neither the public nor the military are served by these attempts at a semantic smokescreen. Indeed he has argued that politicians need to "bring the mission into the consciousness of the public." In his very first interview after taking on the defense portfolio in the new center-right coalition, Guttenberg broke the long-standing taboo, describing the conditions in Afghanistan as "war-like." And he has repeated this term in subsequent interviews, saying that when soldiers are faced with danger and the risk of death and injury then they might well describe their experience as war. Guttenberg's predecessor Jung refused to use the term, instead describing it repeatedly as a "stabilization mission."

The different tone emanating from the Defense Ministry has certainly gone down well with the German military and with soldiers on the ground, who see his clear use of the word "war" as a show of support and solidarity with troops on a dangerous mission. German soldiers have been serving abroad for 10 years now but many feel there is little recognition back home of Germany's changed military role.

'Feels the Pulse' of the Troops

Jochen Hippler, an Afghanistan expert at Duisberg-Essen University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the soldiers are frustrated that their dangerous mission in Afghanistan "is misunderstood and even misrepresented at home."

Ulrich Kirsch, the head of the German Federal Armed Forces Association (Bundeswehrband) has already welcomed Guttenberg's "clear words," saying the minister had "felt the pulse" of the troops. Speaking to the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung last week, Kirsch said: "We are very grateful to the minister for calling things by their name. That makes the seriousness of the situation clear. Our women and men, who are serving there everyday, say this is war."

Any illusion that Germany was merely involved in a humanitarian reconstruction mission was well and truly dashed on Sept. 4 when a German officer called in a deadly airstrike  on two tanker trucks seized by Taliban insurgents near Kunduz fearing they might be used in attack on German troops. The strike left as many as 142 people dead, and the German public prosecutor is now assessing whether to investigate the incident. The former defense minister's handling of the attack was an unmitigated disaster. Jung first categorically denied any civilians had been killed and then later conceded that there may have been some casualties that were not Taliban. Guttenberg has since defended the attack as "militarily appropriate," while regretting any civilian deaths.

Taking to the World Stage with Ease

While few would envy Guttenberg his difficult new role, he seems to relish it. Speaking to the troops on Thursday night in Mazar-e-Sharif, Guttenberg said that his new job lay "close to his heart." The minister has something of a military pedigree, after his military service he continued to serve as a reservist. Guttenberg is married to a descendent of Otto von Bismarck and one of his ancestors was an officer executed in 1944 for his involvement in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

The ease with which he has taken to the world stage makes it was almost easy to forget that the 37-year-old politician only came to national prominence last February when he was named economics minister  after the surprise resignation of Michael Glos. At that stage Guttenberg had served just 100 days as the general secretary of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats.

No Empty Promises

The appointment came as a surprise and concerns were voiced at a time that, with Germany in the economic doldrums, it was foolhardy to appoint someone with so little experience. Yet, the young aristocrat  with the slicked-back hair soon won over the public with his straight talking style and his determination to avoid making empty promises.

He publicly questioned the rush to rescue troubled automaker Opel, saying that an "orderly insolvency" could be a better option. This went down well with the public and in general elections on Sept. 27 he won 68 percent of the vote in his electoral district, the highest direct vote of any member of the German parliament.

Guttenberg, who speaks fluent English, first made his mark as the CSU's foreign policy expert in the Bundestag and has long cultivated contacts across the Atlantic. He is known in practically every think tank in Washington, and has good ties with both Democrats and Republicans. Now he is where he always wanted to be, in a foreign policy position.

And he has hit the ground running with his visit to Kabul this week. Guttenberg was direct in warning Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he had to show that there is discernible progress in the country, particularly when it came to tackling corruption.

"We are committed to our mission here, but we need to know what the Afghan government plans as the next step and how they want to succeed in that," Guttenberg told reporters after the meeting.

Exit Troops

Despite his announcement that he is sending an additional 120 troops, Guttenberg has said that the current mandate will likely be approved without any troop increases for now when it comes up for renewal in the German parliament before mid-December. The minister has also said that Berlin "must not be shy about using the term exit strategy."

Germany is holding on until after an international conference on Afghanistan planned for early next year before making any decisions about sending more troops. "If we should have to realign our objectives after the Afghanistan conference, then we would also have to think about our own capabilities there," Guttenberg told German broadcaster ARD on Wednesday.

Germany and the other NATO allies in Afghanistan are effectively in limbo while US President Barack Obama weighs Washington's strategy for the Afghan conflict. The mission has been made more difficult by the tainted re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai .

'Not Just about PR'

Karzai was declared president after his opponent Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from a run-off round that had been forced on the Karzai by the international community due to massive electoral fraud in the first round.

According to Hippler, this election has further harmed the legitimacy of the Afghan government, making it harder to sell the mission back home in Germany. "The strategy of the international community was supporting and strengthening the Afghan state." But increasingly people don't believe in that strategy. "The German public doesn't really understand what the point is of being there."

Guttenberg may not be the PR disaster that his predecessor was but, "this is not just about PR," says Hippler.

"By not making things worse you are not going to convince the public that a losing war is something good."

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