A War Comes to Germany

By Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, September 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

A War Comes to Germany


Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International


Byline: Stefan Theil

For the first time in three generations, Germany is embroiled in a dangerous overseas war, with 4,200 Bundeswehr troops deployed in an increasingly unstable Afghanistan. But in the lead-up to Germany's Sept. 27 national election, it has become the issue no politician wanted to touch. Far from discussing Germany's strategy in Afghanistan, or using it as a reference point for a larger debate on German foreign policy, major politicians from Chancellor Angela Merkel on down have scrupulously avoided the W word. In her campaign speeches she has tiptoed around the issue; her challenger, Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has talked vaguely about the necessity for an exit plan. The Defense Ministry has rationed information, often trying to create the illusion that German soldiers are involved in a harmless peacekeeping mission, not deadly warfare. Euphemisms abound. The mission is a "stabilization deployment." The battles being fought are "warlike altercations."

All that suddenly changed in the early hours of Sept. 4, when a deadly airstrike ordered by a Bundeswehr commander in Afghanistan pushed the most dangerous word in German politics onto center stage. Already on high alert for Taliban attacks ahead of the German election, German military commanders were poring over reconnaissance images showing that two fuel trucks had been hijacked by insurgents six kilometers south of the German base in Kunduz. Fearing that they would be used for a suicide attack on the Germans--and not wanting to risk engaging the insurgents on the ground--the German commander ordered an airstrike on the trucks. With scores of Taliban and their supporters dead, the incident is easily the deadliest involving the German military since the Second World War.

The attack brought Germany past the Rubicon. Almost two decades after the Bundeswehr first started sending military doctors and peacekeeping soldiers abroad on nonfighting, humanitarian missions--hugely controversial at the time--Germany's Army has quietly become involved in the business of fighting wars again, breaking the long post-World War II tradition of absolute pacifism and the taboo against "militarization." In fact, the attack in Kunduz marks a milestone for German foreign policy. Until now, Germany's civilian and military leadership have tried to keep the Bundeswehr largely out of combat, even in Afghanistan. Now Germany is finally and publicly beginning to debate the use of its military as a fighting force.

Two weeks ago Merkel came ever closer to using the W word. In her first speech to Parliament on Afghanistan since assuming office four years ago--itself a telling sign of how hard German politicians have tried to avoid the subject--she strongly defended the necessity of the Bundeswehr's mission, and vowed that Germany would not go it alone, neither in war nor in withdrawing from its alliance commitments. The "combat mission," she said, "helps protect our citizens' lives from the evil of international terrorism."

While this might be considered boiler-plate in Washington or London, where lively strategic debates are underway over Afghanistan and the future of NATO, it was a bold move just ahead of an election in a country where 70 percent of voters want an immediate troop pullout. Predictably, several opposition parties called for an exit; the increasingly popular far-left Linkspartei also calls for Germany to withdraw from NATO. So far, Merkel and Steinmeier have refrained from using the issue against each other, both agreeing in their only television debate last week that Germany will stay the course. But with the war suddenly in the public focus, that could push more voters to the Linkspartei, which after gains in regional elections last month is playing a growing role in German politics.

Admitted or not, it's long been clear that Germany was getting involved in a shooting war. First sent in 2001 with strict orders to stay out of any fighting, the Bundeswehr has in recent months been drawn into combat alongside NATO troops and local Afghan forces.

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