03 Dec 2007
Germany's growing Afghan dilemma
German policymakers are finding it increasingly difficult to moderate between domestic pressures to reduce the military engagement in Afghanistan and NATO allies' demands to do more.
By Michael F Harsch
In October, it had already prolonged the mandate for 3,500 German soldiers and several Tornado surveillance jets - part of the 40,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
In both cases, the government's motions received large majorities of more than 70 percent; only one of the parties represented in the Bundestag, the Left Party (Die Linke), called for a complete withdrawal of German troops and rejected both mandates unanimously. A closer look, however, reveals a more complex picture.
Within the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which forms the current government together with the Christian Democrats, informally known as "The Union" (Die Union), Operation Enduring Freedom is in fact highly controversial.
The German mandate for this operation allows the deployment of up to 100 special forces in Afghanistan and up to 1,400 soldiers in the Horn of Africa and in the Mediterranean sea. However, the debates have focused almost completely on the mission in Afghanistan, even though German special forces have not been deployed there for over two years.
Critics argue that Operation Enduring Freedom causes high civilian casualties and alienates the Afghan population. Moreover, they doubt that the operation still complies with international law as it is based on the US right of self-defense, six years after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Unlike the ISAF, Operation Enduring Freedom is not mandated by annually renewed UN Security Council resolutions.
This year, 42 out of 207 SPD parliamentarians voted against the Afghan operation's mandate. The vote came in spite of the new rules of engagement for the operation, established due to German and European pressure this summer, which demand stronger precaution to avoid civilian casualties during operations.
The Union almost unanimously rallied behind the government. However, the Christian Democrats have also started to notice widespread opposition in their constituencies against the mission.
A recent poll conducted by the German Allensbach Institute found that only 29 percent of the German population still supports the deployment of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan, in contrast to 51 percent five years ago.
One reason for this development seems to lie in the dramatically deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan over the past two years. In large parts of southern and southeastern Afghanistan, a bloody, asymmetric war is taking place between international and Afghan government forces on one hand, and Taliban and affiliated insurgency groups on the other. The north of the country, where the German troops are based, has remained relatively peaceful, but even there attacks on Bundeswehr camps and patrols have increased in recent months.
The worsening security situation was brutally illustrated on 6 November when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a sugar factory in the northern province of Baghlan. The blast and the response by security forces who opened fire after the explosion resulted in the death of 72 people, among them six deputies and 52 schoolchildren. The factory was a prestige project of German development assistance.
Since the end of World War II, Germany's role in world politics has been that of a civilian power which restrains itself in the use of military force. As the Afghanistan mission has turned from a reconstruction and stabilization operation into one with a rising emphasis on counterinsurgency, the German public has become increasingly uneasy.
Germany's allies, however, urge the government to withstand calls for ending the military engagement. In the run-up to the motion on Operation Enduring Freedom, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried warned that "those who advocate pulling out have to consider not just a position which makes them feel good and pure and absolves them of making hard decisions, but have to consider what would happen if everyone did as they advise."
Furthermore, NATO allies are pressing Germany to share more of the mission's burden and risks and to deploy troops in the dangerous south.
The German ISAF mandate permits a deployment of German troops to regions other than the north only in cases of emergency and for a limited period of time. The German government has repeatedly resisted calls to send soldiers to the south, but in the wake of the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, new demands are likely to come up.
Altogether, the German government and parliament are facing a growing dilemma. In the foreseeable future, they will have to continue to play a two-level game, balancing domestic pressures to reduce the military engagement on the one hand and international pressures to enhance it on the other.
Consequently, German politicians should do more to explain the reasons and benefits of deployments abroad. Otherwise, rising isolationist sentiments in the population may well work to the advantage of populist groups like the Left Party.
Michael F Harsch is a Non-Resident Fellow at John Hopkins University's SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations, and lead-author of the recent report: On the road to disengagement? Envisioning a long-term strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported