A few days before the international Afghanistan conference in London on 28 January, there are overwhelming signs that Germans are tired of sending their soldiers into a war many believe cannot be won. In a recent poll 71 per cent said that the Bundeswehr should withdraw as soon as possible. And 82 per cent oppose sending more troops – even if allies demand them.
Politicians from all parties are beginning to yield to the pressure of public opinion. No nation likes to engage in armed conflicts but Germans are particularly sensitive – between the Second World War and 1990 there was a strict policy of having no soldiers fight outside the country. For a while Afghanistan was seen as a good cause by a majority of Germans – but now the overall feeling is that this conflict is going nowhere.
Defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has said that he does not expect Afghanistan to ever become a western-style democracy and suggested it is time to involve the Taliban in the country’s government. Bishop Margot Kässmann, head of the German protestant church, demanded a troop withdrawal in her New Year’s Day speech – an unprecedented intervention into politics. And Federal President Horst Köhler backed her, saying the “debate was overdue”. After recent Taliban attacks on Kabul’s government quarter, even a Euro MP from Angela Merkel’s own Christian Democrats claimed that “the conflict is obviously unwinnable” with the Taliban ruling over 80 per cent of the country.
Now it’s Guttenberg’s job to moderate the dissent between domestic and foreign politics. He rejected US’ demands for 2,500 more troops. While trying to find common ground with all the governing parties in Germany in time for the London conference, he will also have to talk to the opposition after the meeting – traditionally Germany speaks with one voice when it comes to foreign deployments. Guttenberg has already mentioned “a plausible and sustainable end” to the operation. He will need to return from the conference with a fixed date for German troops coming home.
This is the minister’s trial by fire. This smart newcomer on the national stage – perceived even internationally as the popstar of German politics – has already weathered the furious debate over a Bundeswehr-ordered bombardment in Kundus that killed numerous civilians late last year. Though Guttenberg eventually had to backpedal from earlier assessments of the incident as “militarily justified”, saying this had been a “misjudgement”, the affair has not damaged his image. In polls Guttenberg is as popular as Merkel.
That may change though when he has to testify in a few weeks in front of a committee investigating the bombing. The controversy is about who in government knew what and when. Guttenberg says he had not been properly informed about the incident and already fired two high-ranking Bundeswehr officials. This week he promised parliament that he would check all command structures in the army for deficiencies – and would do so in a “relentless” manner. These are tough words from a defence minister. Germany may have finally realised that being a major international power means taking part in armed conflicts. The question remains whether Bundeswehr, in its current condition, is ready for the job.