The World from Berlin 'We Can only Lose the War in Afghanistan'

During a surprise weekend visit to Afghanistan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally called the conflict a war. German commentators are nevertheless skeptical that she has a clear plan for the Bundeswehr's engagement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a surprise visit to the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a surprise visit to the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan.

For the second time in a week, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg made a surprise visit to German troops fighting in Afghanistan. This time, however, instead of being accompanied by his wife, Chancellor Angela Merkel was at his side.

And she brought along the kind of blunt language that many have accused her of avoiding in the past. German troops, she said, were not just involved in "warlike conditions," a phrase that politicians in Berlin have become fond of using as a convenient way of avoiding calling the Afghanistan conflict a war. "You are involved in the kind of combat one sees in war," Merkel continued in her address to Bundeswehr soldiers in Kunduz, where most of the 4,700 German troops in the country are based.

"This is a new experience," she went. "We have heard such things from our parents talking of World War II, but that was different because Germany was the aggressor."

During her brief visit on Saturday, Merkel also met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. One of the primary issues on the agenda of her meeting with Karzai was that of corruption in Afghanistan. She came away clearly disappointed, telling reporters that Karzai had been able to provide her with many assurances on the issue.

Complete Pullout?

While Merkel praised the troops, the Afghanistan mission continued to spark politicial crossfire at home. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle last week announced that Germany would begin to pull its forces out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. He said Berlin aimed to exit the country completely by 2014.

But this timeframe was challenged over the weekend by the defense minister and military commanders, who voiced reluctance to set a specific deadline given the volatility of the country.

Germans have long been critical of their troops in Afghanistan, which make up the third-largest NATO contingent in the country. A Trans-Atlantic Trends survey released last week showed that only 10 percent of people in Germany thought that the violent country could be "stabilized" in the coming years, far below support in other European nations. In comparison, just over half the Americans surveyed were optimistic about stabilizing Afghanistan.

Merkel referred to waning popular support for the mission in her speech. "Without it we couldn't live as peacefully, and people must know that," she said. "They sometimes view this operation with skepticism, but despite everything they are proud of you."

Monday editions of German newspapers weigh the impact of the Chancellor's surprise visit to Afghanistan.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"It is an appropriate move for the chancellor to travel to Kunduz and talk about soldiers' experience there: War. The German army is active in Afghanistan, albeit in a supporting role, because the country became a refuge for Islamist terrorism under the psychotic Taliban rule. It was here that 9/11 was planned. Western military have intervened and broken the rule of the religious fighters in order to prevent further attacks."

"International troops should help to ensure that the country does not again fall into the hands of fanatics. So far, they have succeeded, and for that reason the mission is not the failure it is often carelessly said to be. However, it has not succeeded at stabilizing the country."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It is good that the chancellor went to visit the German soldiers in Afghanistan ahead of Christmas. Her trip followed that of her defense minister and she even uttered the word 'war' -- an evaluation of the situation on the ground which recognizes the difficulty of the mission, and thus acknowledges the efforts of forces stationed there. Surveys show that the widespread German rejection of the war is coupled with an appreciation for the work of German soldiers. But doubts remain as to whether there are realistic goals that can be reached in Afghanistan to honor those who have fallen."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"In January, German parliament will extend the Afghanistan mandate by another year. That decision has become routine for parties across the board and the move is opposed only by the Left Party. But gone are the days when the majority of parliament really believed that the Bundeswehr could build wells and girls' schools for the people of Afghanistan, as well as winning hearts and minds and bringing democracy and freedom. Gone are also the days when the international forces embodied hope for security in the country. In the year 2011 we will only agree to support a corrupt government which gained power through electoral fraud, which sees economic growth purely in relation its own foreign accounts and which shows no ambition to reform Afghanistan's archaic social structures."

"It is at least honest that the chancellor, in her own convoluted way, called the war a war. But her sentence is only half of the truth. The rest is: We can only lose this war."

The left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau writes:

"Speaking at the weekend, Angela Merkel acted as if she had nothing to do with the war. She neither tried to justify it nor did she offer a new (self-) critical analysis. She spoke to the troops as if they were all together in one boat, not as if she was the decision maker addressing people carrying out her orders. She also avoided, as she avoids at home, taking responsibility for the situation, something that is far more important than uttering the word 'war.'"

"Angela Merkel calls (war) what it is to make the subject a firm fixture in the consciousness of German people. In reality she produces a headline without any content. She does not convince but rather performs. She does with words what her defense minister did with television pictures last week. All of that does not bring us forward, at least not towards peace."

Jess Smee


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