Whither Germany in Afghanistan?

Reviewing recent EuroSavant coverage, one subject clearly stands out: Iraq. “Democracy in Iraq,” “It’s Hot in Iraq,” “Iraq Through Spanish Eyes,” etc. Maybe I should just change the name of this weblog to something like “IraqSavant” – is the .com domain name still available? (If it was, it isn’t by now!) I do try to avoid excessive concentration on one subject, or on one particular national press. But to a great extent what continues to happen in Iraq remains of great concern and interest, especially in August (the “silly season” or “cucumber time,” etc., when little else that’s truly attention-worthy ever happens, except maybe for travel accidents: crashing airliners, the Russian submarine Kursk, etc.), and especially now that more nations are being drawn into involvement, having generously agreed to assist the Americans and the British in occupation duties.

So here’s a change: How about a fairly in-depth treatment from the recent German press about what’s been going on in . . . um, Afghanistan? No wait, this is truly interesting, especially from the German point of view. You see, the Germans and Dutch last Monday finally came to the end of their six months of joint responsibility for the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), charged with helping Hamid Karzai and his Afghan Transitional Administration with establishing security in the country. So were there sighs of relief all around last Monday from the Deutsch and the Dutch? Not exactly: next to take up the ISAF baton is NATO, and of course both Germany and the Netherlands are long-standing members of NATO. In fact, at last Monday’s handover ceremony German lieutenant general Norbert van Heyst formally handed over ISAF’s green banner . . . to German lieutenant general Goetz Gliemeroth, acting for NATO!

But it’s not quite like everything will be the same. Many parties, not the least of which are the Afghan authorities themselves, are taking this opportunity to urge the new NATO leaders to do a better job in establishing security, namely by expanding their troop presence outside of just Kabul. So far, ISAF has largely simply stayed in the Afghan capital – mainly because that is basically what the UN mandate under which it was operating told it to do. It also didn’t hurt that things are generally nasty out in the boondocks, what with various warlords exerting their illegal authority and Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants mounting attacks. Actually, even Kabul hasn’t been too terribly comfy; there have been occasional attacks there, too, including one at the beginning of June that killed four German soldiers.

Presently there is one salient imperative that everyone responsible for Afghanistan faces, and that is that vital nationwide elections are planned there for summer of next year. If they were held with the country in its present state, they would be a disaster, given its continuing lawlessness. This account in Die Welt of last Monday’s ISAF-takeover ceremony cites observers who doubt whether Afghan president (excuse me: that’s rather “Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman”) Hamid Karzai’s authority even extends beyond the walls of his presidential palace, and it’s interesting to note the extraordinary security measures that ISAF authorities felt they needed to have in force, even right in the middle of Kabul, to make sure the transfer-of-command ceremony went off without any untoward incidents.

How can this problem be solved? Karzai has one answer (and his opinion is shared by outgoing German commander, Lt. General von Heyst): at least 10,000 troops are needed to pacify the country. But that is simply politically impossible, so the allies have come up with a second solution: the PRT, or “provincial reconstruction team.” The idea here is to form a combined unit of civilian aid workers and troops to protect them – about 1,000 – and set them down in Afghan cities for the soldiers to establish security and the civilians to set about doing their good works. The Americans already have three such PRTs in stationed in various Afghan cities; the British have one. Now it seems that the Germans will seize upon them as a method for expanding their in-country presence out of just Kabul (even as their in-country numbers shrink from 2,500 to 1,600 in the wake of NATO taking over command of ISAF; but the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently reported that the Germans would be joined in their PRT by the Dutch and the Swedes).

But there’s another rationale behind all this talk of expansion-of-presence, and it’s not hard to discern. It came in the form of President Bush taking time out from fishing at his Texas ranch last week to thank Germany for its “very active role in Afghanistan,” and to express his desire to have the chance to be able to thank Bundeskanzler Schröder personally. (Die Welt even quotes the President as calling German efforts in Afghanistan “more robust than we had expected,” and speaks of a possible Bush-Schröder meeting when the Bundeskanzler visits New York in late September for the opening of the UN General Assembly.) These are sweet words to German officials, who have seen their top boss effectively frozen out by Bush ever since Germany had the temerity to oppose the American plan to attack Iraq in the spring. The supposition is that these expansion plans are being made largely to please the Americans; indeed, the same Süddeutsche Zeitung article reports that Schröder basically promised such to American Secretary of State Colin Powell when he visited Berlin last May.

So where to put that German PRT? Although there has been no final decision yet, it seems that the leading candidate is currently Kundus, 250 km north of Kabul, near the Tajik border. This Die Welt article provides a window into the German decision-process: First of all, an American PRT has already been at work there for some time. The German/Dutch/Swedish PRT would go there to relieve the Americans, but they would also get to profit from the work and good-will already built up there. What is more, Kundus is a particularly good place to go fight the anarchy in Afghanistan because it is also the stronghold of current Afghan defense minister Mohammed Fahim; one reason he became defense minister, it seems, is that he also has a private army which makes him the most powerful man in Afghanistan.

But don’t jump to the conclusion that Germans are merely looking for the next-safest place in the country, next to Kabul, to go with their PRT. It’s true, they did try that trick already: The first choice of the German military, once they were told to start getting ready to form a PRT, was to station it in a place called Charikar, a city located so close to Kabul that it is just about as safe there as it is in Kabul (at least in relative terms). But their political masters in Berlin saw through that right away: What good would it do to go pacify a city that is already essentially pacified? In the current leading choice, Kundus, it’s true that they won’t be fighting warlords – in fact, they will be the guests of one – but it is likely that they will be fighting nasties like the Taliban. We know this because, as Die Welt explains, the Taliban have recently announced that they will start attacking regime and ISAF targets in the north of the country; they had previously mostly confined such activities to the south. At least be glad, the German generals can tell their mixed NATO troops, that we’re not sending you to Herat or to Ghazni: those cities were judged much too far from Kabul, and therefore much too dangerous, for any such PRT insertion.

In all, this makes it very easy to believe German government spokesman Thomas Steg when he announced last week (as reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) that the security of German soldiers would have “absolute priority” in any decision the German government ultimately made about whether it intended to expand its presence in Afghanistan, and if so, how. But if safety is to be the “absolute priority,” then wouldn’t it make the most sense simply to bring them all home immediately? What happened to the goal of enabling the elections planned there for next summer to go ahead in an atmosphere free of intimidation?

At least the German opposition has some inkling that something may not be quite right with the government’s plans. As the defense spokesman of the leading opposition party, the CDU, Christian Schmidt explained (in this analysis in the FAZ), there seems to be something wrong in the thinking at the highest government levels connecting military means to political ends. To Schmidt, the proposed PRT strategy is dubious because cities in Afghanistan seem to be split between those which, on the one hand, are far too dangerous for German troops, and, on the other, those which are pacified so that they don’t need German troops. Before the CDU approves the governments PRT plans, Schmidt declared (in this other FAZ article) that he first would have to see “a goal-oriented political concept for Afghanistan’s future.” In fact, he advocated the convening of an international conference in order to determine the correct political structure and balance-of-power in liberated Afghanistan – in effect, a conference between Karzai and the warlords who are defying his authority, with international observers as referees! The other main opposition party, the Free Democrats, is currently busy expressing its opposition to the government’s Afghan policy by means of a complaint to the Consitutional Court (i.e. Supreme Court) in Karlsruhe, that Schröder’s government has in fact exceeded the authority given it by the German federal constitution by sending troops to serve in ISAF in the first place without gaining permission from the Bundestag; the court’s decision is expected next week.

And what about the Greens, who are traditionally suspicious of any Bundeswehr deployment outside German boundaries? Then again, the Greens are in the government – they are in coaltion with Schröder’s SPD – and Schröder might very well bring them around, if this interview in Die Welt with Green Party vice-chairwoman Angelika Beer is any indication. Frau Beer stoutly maintains that any pressure from the Americans has no connection with what the German government will eventually decide to do in Afghanistan – although she also brings up the fact that the UN Mandate under which the Germans are operating there does restrict their presence to Kabul and its surroundings. Still, this is impressive progress towards interventionist thinking from Schröder’s left-wing coalition partner.

In any case, commentators in the German press are skeptical. Ganz oder gar nicht – “Go all the way, or not at all” demands the title of a recent commentary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The initial strategy of securing only Kabul, hoping that then it would act as some sort of example to the rest of Afghanistan, has clearly failed. Now, spurred by American pressure, the newspaper maintains, Chancellor Schröder’s government is embarking on an ineffective half-measure, in which even the choice of where to station German troops outside of Kabul is determined by political compromise, and not strategic military factors. Writing in Die Zeit, Constanze Stelzenmüller poses a similarly stark choice: Erweitern oder scheitern – “Expand or fail.” What’s needed is 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to do the job properly of bringing security and ensuring that the elections in the summer of 2004 can go ahead. Instead, the German government is sending out the PRTs under American pressure, without even really having formulated a concept of why it is doing this and what it hopes to accomplish.

In the meantime, Afghanistan suffers from massacres as bloody as ever happened since the war there came to and end. What’s more, German (and American) eyes are turning toward the further prospect of the Bundeswehr being deployed to help out in Iraq. That issue has already led to differences of opinion even within the current governing coalition; maybe I’ll deal with that next time.

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