As the London summit on Afghanistan approaches, the debate in Germany over the Afghanistan conflict continues to heat up. And the latest high-profile argument has centered on the head of Germany's Protestant Church, Bishop Margot Kässmann, whose sharp criticism of the German military effort in Afghanistan has made headlines around the country in recent days.
Reinhold Robbe, the German parliament's military commissioner, described Kässmann's statements as irresponsible and said that she had an obligation to provide spiritual guidance not only for pacifists, but also for Bundeswehr soldiers in uniform. Robbe also took Kässmann to task for making "populist" statements without ever having visited Afghanistan to assess the situation herself. He said it was naive to think one could solve the problems in Afghanistan with "prayers and candles." And no one, he said, "is stopping Ms. Kässmann from traveling to the Hindu Kush to sit in a tent with the Taliban and discuss her fantasies of developing common prayers and rituals."
Aside from Robbe's jabs, however, the political brawl between the government and the Protestant Church, which has around 25 million members in Germany, seemed to come to a more conciliatory point this week. On Monday, Kässmann made a trip to Berlin on Monday to meet with German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. According to Guttenberg, the meeting went relatively well. He said talks were "a good start to a necessary discussion" and that he had invited the bishop to come to Afghanistan with him so she could observe the situation firsthand.
Guttenberg later told reporters he had explained to the bishop that he disagreed with her statements that all was bad in Afghanistan -- even if a number of things hadn't improved there yet. Guttenberg had also told the bishop that the German soldiers serving in Afghanistan needed the backing of German society.
And a military bishop, Martin Dutzmann, who also attended the meeting told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that the two parties were united in believing there was potential for Afghanistan policies to change for the better.
Still, Kässmann is maintaining her critical stance. In an interview with German public broadcaster ARD on Monday night, Kässmann said the differences of opinion between herself and zu Guttenberg, who is a Catholic, were small. She said he understood that civilian reconstruction efforts must take precedence over armed conflict. Still, she warned, "I have the impression that at the moment things are mainly being seen from a military perspective and that other, more creative, solutions are not." As examples, Kässmann mentioned the fight against drug-trafficking and also developmental aid for small businesses.
'We Do Not See Civilian Development Taking Precedence'
In a separate interview with German public radio station WDR, Kässmann concluded, "As a church we have been clear: We do not see civilian development taking precedence."
The bishop also said that she didn't understand why she had come in for such harsh criticism and that there was nothing wrong with a church calling for peace and reiterated that her comments were not aimed at the Bundeswehr soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
Despite Defense Minister Guttenberg's best efforts to defuse the situation, the debate between the church and the state on the issue of Afghanistan looks likely to continue. Over the weekend, two more high-ranking churchmen spoke out against the presence of German troops in Afghanistan; and on Tuesday Green Party members sent an open letter to the church voicing their support for the church leaders' statements.
On Tuesday, German commentators welcome Kässmann's campaign, which they argue has correctly taken the debate out of the political and military realm and opened it up to the wider public.
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"They spoke of God and they spoke about the world -- that much is clear. Then again, would one expect anything different from a meeting between the head of the Protestant Church in Germany and the country's defense minister? The high-ranking church leader had invited criticism with her profane thoughts on politics. She didn't stand on semantics such as 'armed defensive action,' or 'military engagement.' Instead she said: 'In Afghanistan, weapons will not bring about peace.' And she has 71 percent of the German populace on her side in that argument."
"Hence Kässmann's journey to Berlin. There the two sides entered into a delicate alliance with the one side blessing the weapons of the other. The head of the protestant church did not come to Berlin to start a verbal battle. Instead she came to do her job, to find a compromise somewhere in the God-given space between the holy realm and the much dirtier, real world. After all, it is not only church goers who prize peace highly and who prefer not to go to war. No wonder, then, that when the bishop came to Berlin, she put everlasting values above contemporary, necessary evils."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"In general, these calls have more in common with your average case of political deafness: Everyone's talking but nobody is listening. But Guttenberg has moved away from this, both in domestic cases as well as in questions of defense. 'We need to approach this in a relatively relaxed and impassionate way over the next few weeks. We have enough issues to work through. And we shouldn't be discussing this in such shrill tones,' he said."
"The statement was aimed at critics of the chancellor, but also at those who are critical of the deployment in Afghanistan. Instead of calling for an accelerated withdrawal, Kässmann is now prepared to join Guttenberg in a visit to the German troops in Afghanistan. The defense minister has opened up a dialogue with the Protestant Church and the bishop is open to talks with the leadership of the armed forces. This is the beginning of a 'meaningful dialogue.'"
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Why has there been such a massive and aggressive criticism of what Kässmann said? Because at the very least the critics know that the bishop is, in principle, correct about Afghanistan. In the face of the ethical, moral and human rights-related doubts that the war in Afghanistan is generating, her opponents -- and they include zu Guttenberg and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle -- all know that if they measure the current results in Afghanistan against the original goals, the whole thing looks like a disaster. With those goals in mind, they know that the current mission is actually counterproductive."
"At the very least they know that the escalation of the war -- as ordered by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama -- is not going to produce any successful, new strategies. It's only going to make the situation worse -- and that goes for the situation faced by German soldiers serving there too. Up until now none of the politicians responsible, nor the Social Democratic or Green opposition parties, have been clear about this uncomfortable reality or its consequences."
"This is why, up until now, the debate in Germany is hung up on matters that are, in comparison, of secondary importance. Firstly, how many more soldiers will Germany be offering to send to Afghanistan at the London summit? And secondly, the political wrangling and partisan tactics over details of the ill-fated air attack on the tanker in Kunduz."
"Because of this Kässmann's comments were important and she performed a worthy service -- they attempt to move the debate outside of those narrow parameters. But that alone is not enough. One hopes that the bishop herself and all the members of her organization will continue to push on this issue."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The meeting between the defense minister and the bishop ended in harmony -- because both of the individuals involved are blessed with charm and good communication skills and because these sorts of peace talks often demonstrate that those fighting are not as distant from one another's point of view as it might first seem."
"To Kässmann's credit, she disturbed the peace by saying: 'Nothing is good in Afghanistan.' Not because she meant to disturb the peace but because the time was ripe to talk about the war. Germany has been avoiding the subject throughout the autumn. They discussed the most consequential conflict in the history of the post-WWII German armed forces, they've asked who knew what and when and who was informed of this and that first. But nobody in the current administration, not even anyone in the opposition, has asked: What good is this mission that is looking more and more like a real war every day? The New Year's sermon by the bishop has broken that silence."
"The Germans have never before had to discuss a war the are waging on their own initiative that has no foreseeable end. But now they are being forced to. ... Asking questions and seeking the truth can be painful. But anyone who wants to justify the mission on ethical grounds must do exactly that.