Berlin’s Canadian conundrum on the Hindu Kush

The contentious eastward expansion of NATO isn’t the only issue clouding the transatlantic alliance’s summit in Romania this week. The Local’s Marc Young explores German reluctance to join the fighting in southern Afghanistan and the implications for Berlin’s foreign policy.

Berlin's Canadian conundrum on the Hindu Kush
Photo: DPA

You know you’ve got a problem if even Canada is annoyed.

Aside from getting all huffy when someone challenges their sovereignty over vast swaths of the Arctic with an icebreaker or submarine, the Canadians aren’t known for picking foreign policy fights. But here we are, in the spring of 2008, and Ottawa is calling out its German NATO allies for supposedly shirking some of the heavy lifting in Afghanistan.

And it’s not just Canada that’s peeved. Several of Berlin’s closest NATO partners are openly upset that German forces are not taking part in combat operations in southern Afghanistan. Instead, they complain, the Bundeswehr stays put in the relatively calm northern part of the country while American, British, Dutch and, yes, Canadian soldiers take the brunt of the casualties inflicted by the Taliban and Al Qaida.

The German government protests – rather meekly – that Berlin is doing its part by stabilizing northern Afghanistan and helping the country rebuild. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel certainly knows the danger posed to the transatlantic alliance if some NATO members believe only their troops are taking the bullets, while others sit out their Afghan deployments in dusty compounds with the picturesque Hindu Kush off in the distance.

The only problem is, just like NATO in Afghanistan, Merkel is fighting on two fronts. She has to try to reconcile foreign military demands with domestic political realities. On the home front, the situation is painfully clear – there simply isn’t the political will within Merkel’s coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and centre-left Social Democrats to expand the Bundeswehr’s mandate in Afghanistan. Even deciding last year to send a few aging Tornado jets for reconnaissance missions over the south was highly controversial amongst German parliamentarians and the population at large.

The current German reticence stands in stark contrast to the willingness to go to war against the Taliban in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But with that horrible shock almost seven years in the past, German politics and the public mood have reverted to type. Widespread criticism of the US-led execution of the war in Afghanistan has only encouraged the German inclination to stay in the north to focus on cuddly reconstruction efforts like training security forces or building schools for Afghan girls.

It’s enough to cause some commentators to call into question Germany’s pretensions to play a bigger role upon the global stage. “The decision whether German soldiers should fight in southern Afghanistan isn’t being made according to military or foreign policy, but rather moral and domestic issues,” wrote Berlin’s centrist daily Der Tagesspiegel this Monday. “A respectable NATO country has to also go where it hurts, become normal and make sacrifices – [but] a respectable Germany has to train the police, rebuild civil society and care for victims.”

But is all the Teutonic navel-gazing moot anyway? US President George Bush essentially let Merkel off the hook earlier this week by announcing he would not demand Berlin send troops into the line of fire in southern Afghanistan while at the NATO summit.

“I want our partners to decide how much they can take on. I want Chancellor Merkel to be able to be satisfied with the outcome,” Bush told Die Welt newspaper. “In other words, I don’t want other states to do anything they don’t feel able to do politically.”

What could be seen as a precious political gift from one leader to another was simply the realization that Berlin is currently incapable of pulling the same weight military as NATO minnows Ottawa or The Hague.

And Merkel might have gotten a free pass this time, but this is an issue that – unfortunately for German foreign policymakers – won’t simply go away. Perhaps it will be Darfur or Somalia, but the next NATO deployment is sure to come at some point in the future. Will Germany only send soldiers if they’re peacekeepers and not combat troops? Berlin consistently voices its ambition to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, yet how can German politicians seriously entertain such ideas while keeping the Bundeswehr hobbled as a second-class NATO force?

A somewhat tasteless joke playing off Germany’s jingoistic past made the rounds in the run up to the war in Iraq. The gag’s gist was that the gung-ho Bush administration at the time should’ve perhaps been given pause if even the once militaristic Germans were reluctant to go to war.

But the flip side of that joke in 2008 might be that the Germans should perhaps reflect on their hesitancy to join NATO combat operations if even the supposedly milquetoast Canadians are telling you to join the fight.


‘Bitter events’: Merkel says focus in Afghanistan must be on evacuating Germans and those in danger

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that efforts must be focused on getting German nationals as well as Afghans who had worked with Germans out of Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power.

'Bitter events': Merkel says focus in Afghanistan must be on evacuating Germans and those in danger
An aircraft at the Wunstorf air base in the Hanover region. The Bundeswehr has begun evacuating German citizens and local Afghan people in danger from Kabul. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Merkel also said the United States had decided to withdraw from Afghanistan partly because of domestic political reasons, sources in her party told AFP.

At a meeting with her CDU-CSU party leadership, Merkel said NATO’s decision to pull out after almost two decades of deployment was “ultimately made by the Americans”, and that “domestic political reasons” were partly to blame.

“We have always said, if the Americans stay, we will also stay,” she said, according to participants at the meeting.

READ ALSO: ‘Historic chapter ends’: Germany completes troop pull-out from Afghanistan

“The troop withdrawal sparked a domino effect” that culminated in the Taliban sweeping back into power, said Merkel.

“For the many who have built on the progress and freedom – especially women – these are bitter events,” she said.

Efforts must now be focused on evacuating German nationals as well as Afghans who had worked with the Germans or who are in danger from the Taliban, she said.

Berlin estimates that 2,500 local employees who worked with German troops or at the embassy, as well as their family members, need to be evacuated from the country.

Another 2,000 Afghans, such as human rights activists or employees of non-governmental organisations, also need to be brought out of the country.

The number swells to 10,000 if their family members are included.

Beyond these groups, many others will seek to leave Afghanistan, said Merkel.

“We must do everything we can to help neighbouring countries to support the refugees,” she said, according to the sources.

‘Air bridge’

The German government is deploying ‘several hundred soldiers’ to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation of German nationals and Afghans in danger from the Taliban.

“An ‘air bridge’ is to be set up from Kabul, to allow the evacuation of local staff, particularly vulnerable women, human rights activists and other employees from non-governmental organisations, for as long as that is possible,” said a source.

Consultations with the United States suggest it may be possible to run the evacuation operation until August 31st, but the German government may end the deployment earlier, said the sources.

Germany had already begun ferrying out staff from its embassy on Sunday, after moving them to safety at a military section of Kabul airport.

The first German military aircraft left on Sunday night for the Afghan capital to help with the evacuation.

“We are not going to risk our people falling into the hands of the Taliban,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German newspaper Bild at the weekend.

The army is flying passengers to an unnamed “neighbouring country”, where they will then be put on civilian flights bound for Germany, the minister said.

A core team of the embassy will carry on operating from the airport where they are currently sheltering, to help in particular with the evacuations.

“We are doing everything now to enable our nationals and our former local employees to leave the country in the coming days,” Maas said.

But he warned the situation is “difficult to predict” and said Germany was working in close cooperation with allies.

Germany had withdrawn its last troops by the end of June after almost two decades in the country as part of a NATO mission.

The 150,000 people sent by Germany at various points over the years made it the second biggest contributor of NATO troops there, after the United States.

Critics of Merkel’s government had however said it had failed to get Afghans who worked for the German military out of the country quickly enough.