Even as the German government continues to focus most of its attention on the financial crisis gripping Germany and the rest of Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet on Tuesday morning agreed to increase the number of German soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The move would up the German contingent by 1,000 soldiers to a total of 4,500. The cabinet also agreed to extend Germany's Afghanistan mandate by 14 months.
The German parliament, the Bundestag, was set to discuss the Afghanistan mandate on Tuesday afternoon before voting in mid-October. Because Germany's coalition government pairs the country's two largest political parties, the measure is expected to pass.
The decision comes at a time of increased hand-wringing among NATO nations fighting in Afghanistan. Seven years after the US and NATO went into Afghanistan, the radical Taliban continues to fight and have even showed signs of increased strength recently. This year has been the bloodiest year so far for Western troops fighting there and there seems to be no end in sight, leading to apparent frustration among some military leaders.
Over the weekend, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, a senior British commander, was quoted as saying that the war in Afghanistan could not be won militarily and that the goal should be "reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency." In a response to Carleton-Smith's statement, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- who is planning on beefing up a US contingent there that already numbers 33,000 -- told reporters Monday that he saw "no reason to be defeatist."
On Monday, reports emerged that the government of Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai has increased contact with the Taliban leadership and recently met with a former Taliban ambassador in Saudi Arabia. The ambassador, Abdul Salam Zaeef, denied that the meetings involved peace talks, but Karzai has long been interested in negotiating with the Taliban. In late September, said he has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to act as a mediator.
In Germany, the decision to reinforce the country's Afghanistan contingent is unlikely to be universally popular given widespread disapproval for a continued military commitment there. While some politicians are calling for concrete exit strategies, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said right before the cabinet debate that it "should not irresponsibly toy with the issue of naming withdrawal dates."
The German Defense Ministry on Tuesday confirmed that a contingent of 100 Germany special forces soldiers attached to the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom would be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had suggested the move last week, pointing out that the unit hadn't been used in three years.
German commentators on Tuesday discuss Afghanistan and recent developments there.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The mission in Afghanistan has developed an alarming life of its own. In the minds of Germans, there is a good mandate (the Bundeswehr-ISAF) and a bad mandate (OEF-terrorist hunters); there is a good soldier, who would prefer to call himself a reconstruction worker, and a bad soldier, who fights in the south and has recently been combating the roots of all evil in Pakistan "
"Those who would like to save Afghanistan and keep the mission from becoming a disaster need to have the courage -- in the eighth year -- to take radical steps. First, they must do away with this separation of mandates and the senseless subdivision into combat mission and reconstruction mission. Those in the Bundestag who hold onto this fiction are only lying to themselves and mocking the soldiers. Second, too much money is being squandered as a result of incompetence and poor organization. Valuable resources disappear into thin air in the chaos of the reconstruction activities because there is a lack of oversight and control "
"The international community needs to attribute less importance to Karzai. As has always been the case, the true source of power lines in the regions and with the tribal units. Afghanistan demands endurance, but as every long-distance runner knows, if you can't pace yourself, you shouldn't be in the race."
Right-leaning Die Welt writes:
"Britain's Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith had the courage to express an uncomfortable truth: The war in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means alone. With their colonial past in the Hindu Kush, the British know very well what they are talking about. And whoever doesn't want to take it from them can just go ask veterans of the Soviet Union's war there just how unconquerable this wild land is "
"It is true that there can be no compromising when fighting against the totalitarian (Taliban) who want to force their repressive lifestyle onto the Afghan population. But it is also true that 'the' Taliban is actually an extremely heterogeneous group with various interests and different degrees of radicalism. There must be an option to negotiate with the moderate tribes for whom the issue is more about power, money, political influence or partial autonomy. We shouldn't leave untried the option of driving a wedge between them and the more radical fanatics and thereby isolating the latter."
Left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"We should welcome the fact that the Afghan government is now trying to hold talks with the Taliban . The real issue is simply one of accepting reality. Of course, there's no question that the talks carry and a certain degree of risk for Karzai and the West. That's not only because they could fail, but also because doing so enhances the status of the fundamentalist jihadists. Finally, the talks also show that the international community is also admitting that the strategy they have been following has failed. That's why some people are viewing these talks with the Taliban as being akin to signing a pact with the devil."
"But nothing should be left untried in the attempt to lessen the suffering of the Afghan population. Without the Taliban, there will be no lasting peace in the Hindu Kush, and it doesn't have to be tied with a resurgence in religious intolerance. It is already returning everywhere in Afghanistan. In the final summation, the fact is that many of the people in power, whether in the Afghan parliament or the government, are no less fundamentalist in their views than the Taliban."
The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:
"For all intents and purposes, the military solution to the crisis in Afghanistan appears to have failed. President Karzai lost his standing with the population long ago. The conversation can't be about making the country more democratic or modernized anymore "
"In light of the political impasse in the Afghan crisis, there appear to be no alternatives to speaking with the Taliban. But it would be ridiculous to entrust this responsibility to Afghanistan's weak president, who doesn't have what it takes in either political or military terms, and the fundamentalists have already turned him down anyway."
"At the moment, there is no chance of establishing direct talks between the West and the Taliban. Any chance of bringing about a cease-fire between the Taliban fighters and Western troops can only be brought about by Saudi mediation. The Saudis are interested in playing this role because they want to prevent the war in Afghanistan from spilling over into Pakistan. And they are capable of pulling this off because of the religious and historical ties they have with the various Afghan groups."
"The Saudis wouldn't play this mediating role out of altruism. They are looking to drive a wedge between the Taliban and Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. For the West, such a deal would only be acceptable on the condition that it doesn't lead straight back into the Middle Ages."
-- Josh Ward, 1:30 p.m. CET