German Troops in Afghanistan

Half-hearted on the Hindu Kush

Germany's Minister for Defence has announced the deployment of a rapid reaction force in Afghanistan. According to Peter Münch, however, in the medium term, the German government will also no longer be able to refuse deployment to the south either

German ISAF soldier in Afghanistan (photo: dpa)
The arguments in favour of the Afghanistan deployment are much more complicated than those opposed to it, says Peter Münch

​​It is a long way from Petersberg in Bonn to the Hindu Kush. So long and steep and arduous, in fact, that many lose their breath along the way and are strongly tempted to shed ballast or simply turn around. Back in late 2001, just after the first deployment in the War against Terror, the Afghanistan Conference taking place on Petersberg agreed to implement a very significant package – Afghanistan was going to get peace, reconstruction, and democracy.

To date, the country has received far less than expected and much has been left by the wayside – things like hope, conviction, and a common will. In any case, there can hardly be any talk about will when it comes to Afghanistan. This is particularly evident in Germany, where many are still asking questions like "Should we?" "Must we?" or, when nothing else seems to help, "Can we even do that?"

Doubt among the population

Like a ritual, these questions are always posed when it comes to the annual extension of the mandate to deploy Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan. The parliament has, until now, consistently voted by a large majority for extensions, yet each year the gulf between the vote of the people's representatives and the doubt among the population grows steadily larger.

The questions cannot simply be shaken off by a dodgy "carry on!" mandate from the grand coalition. On the contrary, the government could find itself trapped should it suddenly no longer be dealing with a simple "carry on" scenario, but rather something new, such as sending battle troops to northern Afghanistan. The NATO partners are vehemently pushing for this, but should we, must we, can we do this?

Whoever answers this question with a no wouldn't have any trouble finding a few gripping arguments to support their position. A deployment to unknown territory invokes images of Vietnam, and we all know where that leads.

Reflex to pull out

The conclusion is that the Bundeswehr should not become entangled in a war in Afghanistan, this clay brown hell, when all they really wanted to do is to secure a little peace. And the reflex to pull out is relatively easy to stimulate, when, for example, one points out that Germans don't need to be defended in the Hindu Kush, but – in allusion to the attack of a teenage ethnic Turk on a senior ethnic German citizen three weeks ago – rather more so in the Munich metro.

German chancellor Angela Merkel (center) in military gear (photo: dpa)
If the German government wants to maintain that it is serious about the goals for the Afghanistan mission formulated in 2001, it has to deploy more battle troops, says Peter Münch

​​Not every Afghanistan refusal is that cleverly formulated or simply constructed. Yet, the arguments in favor of the Afghanistan deployment are so much more complicated than those opposed to it. So complicated, in fact, that the German government has negligently done too little in making its case.

The government has shirked from providing clarity when it concerns assuring German and international interests in Afghanistan, defining goals, and, above all, stating the means necessary to achieve and implement these goals. The German position, which maintains that reconstruction work in the north is a sufficient contribution to the pacification and stabilization of the country, could thereby soon be exposed as a lie of survival.

Democracy – the best bulwarks against fundamentalism

The goals of the international community today are the same as those in 2001, when they were formulated under the shadow of the September 11 attacks. First, Islamic terrorism should not be allowed to maintain any regional operative base or refuge. Secondly, democracy and reconstruction are the best bulwarks against fundamentalism.

Despite all adversities, fighting for these goals still remains worthwhile, even today. And despite all the setbacks, Afghanistan is certainly far from lost. Yet, whoever abandons the field to the Taliban and al-Qaida also encourages them to conduct attacks worldwide. It is and remains in the interest of the West to send soldiers to Afghanistan.

In the beginning, the world community believed that the means to conduct this effort could by kept to a minimum. The ISAF security troops were initially numbered at 5000 soldiers, and the Germans, who had assumed the role of Godfather of the peace process during the Petersberg Conference, were proud to contribute more than half of these troops.

Responsibility on the Hindu Kush

However, as the Taliban proved not so easy to defeat as was once hoped, ISAF was forced to rearm. Today it has grown into a force of 40,000 soldiers and almost all partner countries have increased their contribution enormously – except for the Germans. American, British, Canadian, and Dutch troops must all fight in the dangerous south and east of the country. The Germans do not.

Certainly, they are doing good work in the north and make a point of talking about it. Yet, there is no solidarity to be found in the German position, which has firmly established its 3000 Bundeswehr soldiers in a comparatively safe region. And it also isn't smart, for although the Germans can perhaps conduct reconstruction work alone, we could all lose the war together. There is no way getting around the deployment of battle troops to the north.

In the medium term, the German government will also no longer be able to refuse deployment to the south either, if they want to maintain that they were serious about the goals for the Afghanistan mission formulated in 2001.

Back then, Germany demonstrated at Petersberg that it wanted to assume responsibility on the Hindu Kush. At the time, there were only brave answers to the many troublesome questions concerning the shoulds, musts, and cans.

Peter Münch

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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