The World from Berlin 'Allowing Afghanistan to Help Itself Has to Be the Top Priority'

Four days after Sen. Barack Obama called on a reluctant Germany to get more involved in Afghanistan, German commentators are still debating who has a clearer vision of Afghanistan's real needs.

A column of German vehicles serving as part of the Quick Reaction Force in Afghanistan.

A column of German vehicles serving as part of the Quick Reaction Force in Afghanistan.

The estimated 200,000 people who gathered in Berlin last Thursday to hear US presidential candidate Barack Obama speakare a testament to both his personal popularity in Germany and the country's hope that US voters will embrace his promise of change when they go to the polls in November.

When it comes to the touchy subject of NATO obligations and Afghanistan, however, Germans were hoping Obama's speech would tread lightly. "Obama should only ask of us what we are able to deliver," Niels Annen, a member of Germany's federal parliament within the left wing of the SPD, told SPIEGEL ONLINE three days before Obama spoke.

In the end, though, Obama did not steer clear of the topic, saying: "This is the moment when we must renew our resolve … in Afghanistan. …. America cannot do this alone. The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda…."

Obama's call puts German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an uncomfortable position on both the issue of how much commitment Germany is willing to provide and what type of commitment that should be. Germany plans to increase its mandate in Afghanistan by an additional 1,000 soldiers. If parliament approves the measure in an autumn vote, the total number of German soldiers there will jump by nearly 1,000 to 4,500.

What Germany has particularly come under criticism for, though, is how its soldiers are put to use. German soldiers are currently restricted to peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts in the relatively safe northern part of the country, while the US and other allies are calling on them to bring the troops south and allow them to share the load in combat against Taliban and al-Qaida forces seeking to topple the already wobbly regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Nevertheless, the Germans see their bricks in the north to be just as important -- if not more so -- than the bullets in the south. In response to Obama's call, Ulrich Wilhelm, a spokesman for Merkel's government, told reporters Friday that the government saw "no deficiencies in terms of the army's or Germany's involvement in Afghanistan," adding that the government was doing all it could within its means. And to underline the country's commitment, Steinmeier made a surprise four-day visit to Afghanistan on Friday, less than a day after speaking with Obama in Berlin. While there, Steinmeier has visited German forces rebuilding water supply systems and organizing various cultural projects and met with Karzai in Kabul.

German commentators don't agree on who has it right -- Obama or the current German government:

Right-leaning Die Welt writes:

"Do those (German) politicians, who get all excited about (Barack Obama), really believe that a country as big as Afghanistan can be kept peaceful with only 54,000 ISAF soldiers? German and international security experts have been pointing out for years that 360,000 troops would be needed in the Hindu Kush just to bring the level of commitment there up to that in Kosovo. The conclusion is simple: Whoever wants to defeat the Taliban must be prepared to undertake completely different efforts."

"After conceding that the government in Afghanistan will crumble if it does receive the help of more troops, some people -- such as Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler -- will say in the same breath that Germany has something even better to offer than military assistance. That very well may be the case. But the fact is that, when it comes to war, what is most urgently needed is military support. And we also shouldn't forget that the US is also providing the lion's share of civilian assistance in Afghanistan, too. It's not Europe, and it's not Germany."

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Very few (of the 200,000 Germans who came to see Obama speak in Berlin last Thursday) are likely to have been happy about (his) saying that he would like to see more German soldiers in Afghanistan. And even fewer of the Obama fans probably realize what the Democratic politician has to gain from an increased commitment of allied soldiers: If NATO sends more troops to the Hindu Kush, the US will be able to save a lot of money for its military. And, as Obama gave away on the weekend, he would want to use the billions the US could save in this way to lower taxes and to provide his countrymen with some relief from the steep increases in gas prices."

"This makes one thing for sure: Even Obama… views foreign affairs and interactions with the allies primarily from the vantage point of domestic politics. … Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have tried to explain to Obama that Afghanistan can only be pacified for the long term by means of civilian reconstruction. The population is only going to actively oppose the forces fighting against reform once they are sure that their living conditions can be improved in the long run. The Taliban know that too, which is why they are doing whatever they can to block or destroy any success on the part of reconstruction workers.

"That is why the reconstruction efforts must be protected by military means. But the top priority has to be putting Afghanistan in a position to help itself. … It's still unclear whether Obama understands things this way, too."

-- Josh Ward, 1 p.m. CET


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