German political elite in denial over Afghanistan guerrilla war


ANALYSIS:As Germany remembers its war dead, events in Afghanistan have placed the government in a difficult quandary, writes DEREK SCALLY

GERMANY’S NEW memorial to soldiers killed in service is a concrete and bronze manifestation of its conflicting attitudes to its military, the Bundeswehr. An inscription in one end wall of the building reads: “In memory of the Bundeswehr dead. For peace, justice and freedom.”

A stream of visitors arrived at the new memorial on Tuesday evening. But few noticed the barely legible names projected above and behind their heads. Josef Mathies. Hubert Wochinger. Friedrich Weglöhne. Just three of 3,100 German soldiers killed in duty since 1955. It’s a curious design decision to display the names of the dead in a place most people wouldn’t think of looking. Perhaps it is in keeping with German public opinion towards its military: yes in principle, just spare us the detail.

The memorial in Berlin’s defence ministry comes after years of tortured debate over whether, given Germany’s history, such a memorial was appropriate or necessary.

“This place is not about false hero worship and serves no victim cult,” said President Horst Köhler at the dedication. “But it reminds politicians that their decisions can cost lives.”

That was on the minds of politicians hours earlier in the Bundestag. They were confronted with the reality of the Bundeswehr military engagement in Afghanistan and the worst attack in Germany’s post-war history.

Last Friday evening near the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz, Taliban insurgents hijacked two petrol tanker trucks. A German commander responsible for the area gathered intelligence from several sources then, fearing the tankers could be used as rolling bombs, called in an air strike.

The exact details remain unclear. But at least 59 people died including many civilians. Reports noted the Taliban forced some locals to the scene while others went hoping to siphon off free petrol. A bad situation was made worse when, hours after the attack, German defence minister Franz Josef Jung gave a robust denial that any civilians were killed in the air attack.

It’s a nightmare scenario for Germany’s main political parties ahead of the September 27th election and has increased political tension on two fronts.

On the one side are Berlin’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) partners many of whom, particularly the US, have never been convinced that Germany was pulling its weight in Afghanistan. They were quick to condemn the German action as a disastrous own goal that undermined a new Nato strategy to build trust with Afghans by minimising civilian casualties.

Sensing malice in the reactions of Nato allies, a brusque chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag on Tuesday that before the full facts were known she “would not tolerate” premature judgments of the incident, “neither at home nor abroad”.

The other front is more troubling for Merkel. Faced with an already sceptical public, the Kunduz airstrike threatens to undermine the justification of the German mission in Afghanistan, its nature and its perspective. She went to great lengths to restate why German soldiers are in Afghanistan. After the Taliban-organised September 11th attacks, she said it was in Germany’s interest as a Nato member to tackle international terrorism in its own back garden rather than wait for it to reach Europe’s door.

For many Germans, though, this is an abstract argument. Though the September 11th attacks were planned in Hamburg, Germany has been spared a large-scale terrorist attack although there have been several close calls.

German politicians face another problem: for years they have refused to describe the Afghanistan mission as a “war”. Officially, the Bundeswehr is on a mission of “vernetzte sicherheit” – “networked security” where economic and infrastructural reconstruction is protected by military means.

“People have problems understanding what happened on Friday because, for years, politicians have failed to call what’s happening there by its real name, a veritable guerrilla war,” said former soldier Marc Lindemann who has served in Afghanistan.

That leads to the next problem. Germany’s military mandate in Afghanistan, renewed annually by the Bundestag, has changed radically since 2001.

Soldiers deployed as a peacekeeping and reconstruction force in the relatively calm northern regions are now defending themselves against Taliban attacks: nine in 2007, 31 last year and 53 so far in 2009.

Some 35 German soldiers have been killed and 118 injured. Returning soldiers are disillusioned and say they are too busy fighting the Taliban to fulfil their original mission to train local security forces.

Military analysts have delivered damning verdicts, too.

“Rising violence, a stagnating economy, an unhappy population, a corrupt government and an increasingly strong opponent – it’s hard for me to view that as success,” said analyst Harald Müller on German television. “It pains me to say this because I supported the mission at the start. But now it’s starting to look like Vietnam.”

Back in Berlin, Afghanistan is on the minds of visitors drifting in and out of the new memorial.

A decade after its first foreign military deployment, in Kosovo, Germany’s Bundeswehr now has a memorial to its dead, like other armies. But the pacifist streak running through German society means this is far from a “normalisation” of the German military. “Frau Merkel has yet to convince me of the logic of the Afghanistan mission,” says Hilde, a pensioner from the northeastern city of Rostock. “War is neither a means of doing politics, nor is it effective against guerrillas.”

Harald, a pensioner from Cologne is more circumspect. “I see the need for this place, for people to remember the sacrifice,” he said. “But it doesn’t help Frau Merkel now. She’s in a right quandary over Afghanistan.”

Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent of The Irish Times

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