Germans will go to the polls on September 27 to elect a new Chancellor and Government. Unsurprisingly, the economy is the dominant issue. But the lack of debate over the mission in Afghanistan – where Germany is the third largest troop contributor after the United States and the UK – is astonishing.
The leading candidates for the Chancellorship – current conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition-partner, socialist Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – have seemingly come to a tacit understand to park Afghanistan as a campaign issue. The War remains extremely unpopular in Germany and therefore politically toxic. In fact, despite overwhelming approval for President Obama and a sharp upswing in U.S. favorability ratings among Germans, the public disapproves of his troop increases to Afghanistan by 63 percent to 32 percent in favor.
Both sides’ lack of political courage over Afghanistan reflects the half-hearted nature of the German deployment to Afghanistan. The 4,050 troops based there are hamstrung by geographical and operational caveats, which will almost certainly continue no matter who occupies the Chancellory after the election. So too with the limitations placed on the use of German equipment in Afghanistan: its six multiuse Tornedo aircrafts are restricted to purely reconnaissance missions, despite a need for more laser-guided precision munitions which the Tornedos could provide.
German Minister of Defense, Franz Josef Jung, recently went on record to publicly state that Germans were not fighting a War in Afghanistan, but rather, were there to build schools and hospitals. The civilian aspect of President Obama’s civ-mil strategy is certainly important; and peace support operations in Afghanistan require commitments comparable to combat operations in terms of security, financing and co-ordination. However, Germany clearly sees Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development as a ‘soft’ option which can be undertaken in place of hard combat operations, and it has failed to deliver on these projects as well. Germany’s utter failure to adequately train and equip Afghanistan’s police force, despite having led that project for several years, demonstrates a profound lack of political will for the mission.
The British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently noted that due to German and EU failures to adequately train the Afghan police force, the U.S. military has been forced to ‘step into the breach’, subtracting valuable military and financial resources from other areas of its mission to do so. Germany’s failings in Afghanistan expose it as a nation uncertain of its role in the world, uncommitted to NATO and one which the United States can not reasonably rely on as a leading transatlantic partner.