The World From Berlin 'A Technical Assistance Force in Olive Drab'

Germany's allies are increasingly impatient with its refusal to take a more active combat role in war-torn Afghanistan. A diplomatic push in the lead-up to a NATO conference next week has the Bundeswehr on the defensive.

It increasingly looks like the German Defense Ministry is in a no-win situation. In a letter leaked to the German press last week, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the German army, the Bundeswehr, for not doing more to help fight the Taliban in southern Afghanistan -- where American troops have been engaged since 2001 as part of a NATO mission.

German paratroopers cruising in Kabul. NATO leaders want to see more of the boys in red berets heading to fight in southern Afghanistan, but the Bundeswehr has refused a combat role.

German paratroopers cruising in Kabul. NATO leaders want to see more of the boys in red berets heading to fight in southern Afghanistan, but the Bundeswehr has refused a combat role.

In the lead-up to a NATO conference in Vilnius, Lithuania on Thursday, Gates asked Germany to start putting its troops in harm's way -- specifically, to send soldiers to the more dangerous southern part of the country and authorize them to use force. Canadian politicians have also called for a greater German contribution, demanding that its European partners in NATO step up their overall troop commitment by 1,000. If not, they are threatening to call for an immediate Canadian pull out. The Canadians have lost almost 80 soldiers in Afghanistan.

So far, Germany has sent more than 3,000 soldiers to the relatively peaceful northern provinces of Afghanistan. The letter sparked a firestorm in Germany, where the mission in Afghanistan is already deeply unpopular.

On Monday, a new wrinkle put even more pressure on Berlin to act -- the French government announced it was willing to up its troop levels in Afghanistan, perhaps as part of an effort by Nicholas Sarkozy's government to patch up French-American relations. The French offer makes the Germans look even worse. Unable to please their NATO allies without angering voters, German politicians are truly in a bind. German papers read between the lines.

Center-left Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Between the lines, it's clear what US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates really thinks of German troops in northern Afghanistan. Sure, he praises the Germans, but one shouldn't misunderstand. The Pentagon head would rather have written: Your soldiers play crossing guard for Afghan girls, while my men risk their lives fighting against the Taliban. That's not fair -- so your soldiers should have to fight and die in southern Afghanistan too."

"It won't be long before nobody in the government is willing to accept the consequences of Washington's requests. When the US government sees war as the best way to bring peace to Afghanistan, then they should go ahead and fight -- but without German help."

Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich's center-left daily, writes:

"The German-American alliance has survived all sorts of conflicts in the last few years. Through it all, one thing has remained constant: From the president on down, the US government has praised Germany's presence in Afghanistan. It was that way in (former Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder's day, despite the bitter split over the Iraq war, and it hasn't changed with Merkel's arrival in the chancellor's office. …"

"But the schism between the wishes of its allies and what Germany is willing to sacrifice could open even wider. Canadians, Dutch and Brits also have domestic political concerns. And no one should expect the pressure on Europe to weaken with a new face in the White House. No matter who's elected, he or she will want to bring American soldiers home and replace them with troops from other countries."

"Schröder risked his office with a vote of confidence over the mission to Afghanistan in 2001. Merkel doesn't have to go that far, yet. But she should expect the debate over the future of Germany's role in Afghanistan to get more passionate and aggressive."

Meanwhile, the Financial Times Deutschland opines:

"Formally, the Germans are in a relatively good position. But if France acts on its offer to send troops to embattled southern Afghanistan, then the political wiggle room for Germany's leadership may disappear rapidly."

"The basic dilemma for German politicians has once more grown acute. On the one had, it's clear to all the parties (with the exception of the Left Party) that Germany has to help suppress Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan with military force. It's a question of international security first of all, not to mention a matter of loyalty to Germany's allies and credibility if Berlin wants to play a role on the world stage."

"On the other hand, the popular support for a German role in Afghanistan is slipping away. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of citizens don't support the idea of German troops in Afghanistan. And a former Social Democratic Party leader, Klaus Bölling, a former top aid to former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has dismissed the fight there as pointless butchery and urged a withdrawal. The more it becomes obvious that the Bundeswehr can't just act as a sort of technical assistance force in olive-drab, the harsher the critiques will get."

-- Andrew Curry, 12:30 p.m. CET


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