Cracks in the German Afghanistan Refusal Front?

NATO these days is undergoing somewhat of a crisis, having to do with the Alliance’s efforts in Afghanistan. Officials from the various NATO lands will deny it, but recent developments in Afghanistan itself have been further shaped and amplified through a serious of previously-planned security conferences to produce some serious tensions.

It seems some NATO alliance partners are rather unimpressed with the level of contribution offered by certain others, and are ratcheting up the pressure on these laggards to get more with the program. This argument dominated the NATO conference of defense ministers held last week in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. As you can expect, the US is the leading country among that first group, but Canada has been complaining as well. That country currently has 2,500 troops stationed in dangerous southern Afghanistan, by Kandahar, and has even threatened to send those troops home once its current commitment comes to an end if there are no new troop commitments to southern Afghanistan from other NATO allies.

Of course, it’s not too polite to explicitly name the targets from what we could call the “slacker” camp whom you’re trying to pressure to do more. Still, the side-hints were clear that Germany heads that list. For although there are now German troops currently serving in Afganistan, they are stationed in the relatively-peaceful North of the country, and they further operate under rules of engagement which restrict them to firing their weapons only in self-defense. German officials had been asked – prior to the Vilnius conference – to commit more troops, and to permit the new troops and those in the North to be transferred to the South, but so far the German government has refused.

On to Munich

That dispute was not going to be allowed to die in Vilnius, for – lo and behold – right after the NATO conference all the leading players were scheduled to proceed straight to Munich, to the Conference on Security Policy that takes place there each year at this time in February. Waiting for them was Horst Teltschik, the German politician and international businessman who serves as the Munich Conference’s chief officer, and as his visitors made their way there he had some remarks to make to German radio which were picked up by the home-town newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung (“NATO is at the limit of its possibilities”). NATO is trying to do too much, was Teltschik’s verdict; what was needed at the conference was an intensive discussion about just where NATO should be engaged and where it should not be. But shouldn’t such calculations already have been made by this point? Actually, In Teltschik’s view, no, they have not, because of poor communication between America and its European allies: the US marched into Afghanistan in the first place without any consultation, according to Teltschik. (This is a bit glib: the US attacked Afghanistan in October, 2001, in response to the attacks of 11 September, which spurred the NATO allies to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, essentially identifying the September 11 attacks as attacks on all NATO members. And while it is true that the Bush administration showed little need or tolerance for outside input when planning its attack upon Afghanistan, April 2003 did see NATO collectively and voluntarily take over command of forces there, the ISAF. I submit that it was that point – at the latest – which was the occasion for weighing whether NATO belonged in Afghanistan, and that the takeover of ISAF command constituted a clear, if implicit, answer.) Still, Teltschik is willing to countenance sending German soldiers to reinforce NATO efforts in southern Afghanistan, i.e. what the German government is currently refusing, although he also suggests that other NATO countries such as Italy and Spain be reminded of their obligations to the Alliance as well.

Ultimately, though, Horst Teltschik these days is not empowered to speak for that government, no matter how “plugged-in” he is to the highest German political circles. It is still instructive to hear the views of such a German politician, especially when he reveals himself to be somewhat less hard-line on the subject of reinforcing/modifying the German role in Afghanistan than his government. Die Zeit now has an article on-line (Die for Afghanistan?) which takes this further by surveying seven other prominent figures, most involved in some way in the German government, about whether German soldiers should be called upon to – as the title puts it – “die for Afghanistan.”

Still Believers in Afghanistan

Reading through the article, it’s a relief to learn that the vast majority of the interviewees still believe in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Particularly interesting are the comments recorded from Eckart von Klaeden, who is the foreign affairs spokesman for the co-governing CDU/CSU (i.e. conservative) faction in the Bundestag. The German mission to Afghanistan, he notes, marks the crucial new stage in German foreign policy – whose beginning can be said to have occurred on 11 September – in which his country has shown itself finally to be willing to take up it global responsibilities with global deployments. (In the 1990s all that Germans were willing to countenance in the way of military deployment was the immediate European area, i.e. the Balkans. And before that, since World War II the Germans had been unwilling to consider any deployment of their troops outside of their own country at all.) He identifies what he calls “the danger of islamic fundamentalism” and says that anyone who thinks they can avoid that by avoiding the fight against it is fooling themselves. Now, all of this is the sort of language you would expect from someone who after all is a spokesman for government policy – except that there is nothing in his statement that holds back or qualifies the above statements, which might be rather strange in that, as I have noted, German government decision-makers currently have set their face against any change or supplement to the German mission. There seems to be an inconsistency here, no?

Further encouraging talk issues from Heiner Geissler, of the CDU, who is also a well-respected politician emeritus in the mold of Horst Teltschik. “If NATO is unsuccessful, then the Front [against terrorism] will shift to Hamburg, or to Frankfurt.” Good, hard-core stuff, but Geissler also sees justification for the German mission in Afghanistan in the advancement of human rights and democracy, namely against religious suppression. We’re fighting a world-wide civil war, Geissler avers, one that is dangerous because it is irrational, based as it is upon a religion, and “Islam is even a dangerous religion, because it empowers its believers to go wage war.”


So much for members of the governing coalition – what about, say, the Greens? The Die Zeit article does also contain a brief interview with Angelika Beer, political-security spokesperson for the Greens in the European Parliament, and her attitude is also pretty much as positive as could be expected: “We stand responsible for stabilizing Afghanistan.” However, she is not in favor of sending the German troops to southern Afghanistan – not until conditions in the South become like conditions in the North where the Germans are already located, i.e. where things have calmed down to the point that meaningful reconstruction and other civilian-assistance projects can be undertaken. In other words: We don’t want to send our troops to the South to fight to bring peaceful conditions there until peaceful conditions in fact already prevail there!

There’s also a contribution from one Bernhard Gertz, Chairman of the Bundeswehrverband, which I interpret as being not really a soldiers’ union, but rather a soldiers’ lobbying group much like the Association of the United States Army. Gertz takes a “yes, but” position much like Green politician Beer: We must indeed fight in Afghanistan against al-Qaida, let’s not bury our heads in the sand! – but, then again, sending any more troops than there already are won’t really do any good. Finally, there has got to be at least someone from the “nay” side to give the piece some balance, and for that the Die Zeit editors bring in Feridun Zaimoglu, idenitified as “writer and member of the German Islamic Conference.” The German presence in Afghanistan is complete nonsense, Zaimoglu advises – it’s the “ass of the world” anyway, and sending our troops there only servers to advance American imperialism, etc. etc.

Taken as a whole, then, the tone of most of these interviews displays continuing support among leading German opinion-makers for the German mission in Afghanistan. Again, much of this is in fact hard to reconcile with the government’s current hard-and-fast “no” to requests to send more troops and deploy more of them down where they are needed, namely to help out hard-pressed NATO allied forces in the South of the country. This dissonance suggests to me that that German government “no” won’t stand for long, and at least some sort of compromise is sure to be found.

UPDATE: The evidence continues to pile up that the rest of the German government is hardly as opposed to the idea of sending German troops to the more-dangerous southern regions of Afghanistan as is the very top. This article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung reveals how Ruprecht Polenz (CDU) – no less than the Chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee – has made it clear he sees nothing wrong with sending German troops to the South, in an interview with radio station SWR. And our old friend Eckart von Klaeden (quoted above in the Die Zeit interview-article) reappears here to urge his government to be “more offensive-oriented” in its support to NATO allies in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Süddeutsche Zeitung also cites Gernot Erler (who, as Staatsminister im Auswärtigen Amt is the equivalent of an American Under-Secretary of State) to the effect that Germany cannot be called a slacker when it comes to contributions to the Afghanistan effort – 3,200 soldiers deployed plus Tornado fighter-bombers, and 26 dead so far – and it is therefore not fair to ask her to do more.

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