Afghanistan is suddenly an election issue in Germany

Deadly air strike has changed the focus of the upcoming vote

German Chancellor Angela Merkel German Col. Georg Klein sat in the Tactical Operations Centre of the German field camp in Kunduz, Afghanistan, earlier this month. He stared at grainy images, being relayed by an American B-1B bomber, of two gas-filled trucks parked several kilometres away. An Afghan source had tipped him off that the trucks had been hijacked and assured him there were no civilians nearby. On screen, Klein could make out the trucks and people swarming around them. But it was impossible to tell who among them were armed.

German soldiers have been in Afghanistan since 2002. Despite suffering more than 30 deaths, they had been harshly criticized by their allies for shunning combat and offensive operations. Some of the caveats restricting their rules of engagement had recently been lifted. It’s possible Klein wished to make a more active contribution to an increasingly bloody war. But we can’t know with certainty what Klein was thinking, and he has said little about it since.

We do know that Klein claimed the hijacked trucks posed an “imminent threat,” despite the fact that they were immobilized. Calling in an air strike would have been the easiest way to destroy the trucks and the Taliban around them. But the new strategy for Afghanistan, as outlined by American Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the recently appointed commander of both the International Security Assistance Force and of all U.S. troops in the country, stressed protecting civilians rather than destroying insurgents. Air strikes were to be avoided.

And yet, shortly after one in the morning, Klein ordered an attack by two American F-15 fighter jets. The fighters dropped two 500-lb bombs. The tanker trucks were engulfed in flames and between 50 and 100 people died. Many were civilians. It was the most deadly engagement for Germany’s armed forces since the Second World War. The repercussions would soon be felt in Berlin, where a national election is scheduled for Sept. 27.

IT IS DIFFICULT TO exaggerate the shadow that the Second World War continues to cast on Germany’s foreign policy. Having been responsible for so many millions of deaths, Germans are reluctant to send their troops abroad. Even Germany’s deployment to the Balkans in the 1990s was controversial, and that resulted in no German combat deaths. Germany’s mission in Afghanistan has been much more contentious. Until recently, most politicians described it as a peacekeeping and stability operation rather than a war. “The German public is allergic to the fact that soldiers go over there to kill people,” said Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, in an interview with Maclean’s. “Their soldiers are supposed to go over there and build schools and do positive things and be development aid workers.”

For a while, with the most vicious fighting happening in Afghanistan’s south, German soldiers in northern Afghanistan avoided sustained combat, which helped keep the façade intact. At the same time, as the German magazine Der Spiegel phrased it, German political and military leaders “morally harangued” their NATO allies for their excessive use of force. “Then a German general turns around and calls in those heavy handed tactics,” says Janes. It has refocused public attention on a war that politicians had tried not to discuss.

Germany is currently governed by a “grand coalition” made up of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, along with their traditional left-leaning rivals, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), whose candidate for chancellor is Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Germany sent soldiers to Afghanistan seven years ago under an SPD-led government, and the mission has continued under the CDU. Most Germans want their soldiers out of Afghanistan. But because both the CDU and the SPD have backed the mission, neither party initially wanted to make the war a campaign issue. According to Jan Techau, director of the Europe Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, there is a greater consensus among Germany’s political elites than among the general public that Germany has security issues at stake in Afghanistan. Peter Struck, the SPD’s defence minister from 2002 to 2005, famously claimed that Germany was being “defended in the Hindu Kush.”

Rising public opposition to the war made it unlikely that this political consensus could hold. The SPD risked losing ground to The Left party, which wants an immediate withdrawal of German troops. With only two weeks until the election, the SPD therefore revised its position and now says German troops should leave by 2013. Its plan for withdrawal stresses training and transferring authority to Afghan police. “It’s a sign of just how unpopular it is, and how desperate the SPD are,” says William Paterson, a specialist on Germany at the Aston Centre for Europe in Birmingham, Britain. Even Merkel, who is generally more hawkish than her SPD opponents, has called for an international conference to discuss transferring responsibility for security to Afghan authorities. Unlike Steinmeier, she hasn’t set a timeline for withdrawal, but the Afghan war has forced itself into her campaign, too.

There aren’t many other issues that divide Merkel and Steinmeier. Instead, says Josef Joffe, editor of the German newsweekly Die Zeit and an international studies fellow at Stanford University, most Germans will vote on the broader question: “To whom do we entrust our future?” According to polls, the answer is Merkel. She has a sizeable lead, but not likely large enough to form a coalition with her preferred partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party. Merkel has benefited from what most judge to be her competent handling of the economic crisis. Germany is now officially out of its worst recession since the Second World War. She also caught a break when General Motors agreed to sell its controlling stake in the German car company, Opel, to Canadian parts maker, Magna International, Merkel’s favourite bidder.

Merkel’s biggest asset is likely her personality. Four years ago, some described her as Germany’s Margaret Thatcher. Radical reforms were expected under her chancellorship. These didn’t happen–partly because of the restricting coalition the CDU formed with the SPD, but also because Merkel turned out to be a more cautious and pragmatic politician than many had anticipated. But Germans warmed up to Merkel thanks to what Joffe describes as her “soothing demeanor.”

It is now almost certain that Merkel will win on the 27th and continue to serve as chancellor. She’ll be governing a country that is emerging from a recession. No obvious domestic crises loom in Germany’s immediate future. She would be in a comfortable position were it not for Afghanistan. How Merkel handles the German mission there will shape her second term.

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