I’m back from Germany, where I was participating in the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s Transatlantic Dialogues Program. It was an eye-opening, whirlwind experience. While in the beginning the trip focused on local politics and development, especially in the world of new technologies, the back part of the trip focused on a series of meetings with national political leaders and foreign policy-focused advisers and officials in Germany’s Foreign Ministry, parliament, and Chancellery.
While the foreign policy conversations covered a wide variety of issues, the different people we spoke with listed a number of important foreign policy issues for Germany in the coming years, including trade issues in Europe, Africa and Asia, continuing (and increasingly frustrating) attempts to forge Middle East Peace, and dealing with the rise of new powers, especially China, India, Brazil. But when asked to name the main foreign policy issue facing Germany, they almost uniformly responded, “Afghanistan.”
Germany presently has the third-largest force in Afghanistan, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has consistently repeated her support for Germany’s continued presence in Afghanistan, and since January has increased Germany’s troop total in the country from 4,500 to roughly 5,350, in the face of (or perhaps because of) criticism that the German army has allowed the country’s once-peaceful north to slide towards instability.
But despite support not only from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party but from nearly every other major German political party, the German presence in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular; post-Second World War Germany is uneasy with the idea of their military engaging in combat abroad, and this unease has been exacerbated by several incidents where errors from German soldiers have resulted in the deaths of innocent Afghans. Germany’s leaders have only recently begun referring to the country’s presence in Afghanistan as a “war” rather than as an aid or peacekeeping operation, and former German President Horst Koehler resigned in May after making controversial comments that German troops were in Afghanistan in part to “protect our interests, such as ensuring free trade routes or preventing regional instabilities.”
The officials my group spoke to reaffirmed Germany’s commitment to Afghanistan, even as the German army transitions to more active operations in the country’s increasingly violent north and elsewhere. They voiced concerns about stability in South Asia if the military forces left Afghanistan prematurely, spoke of the need to protect women’s rights, and also expressed their concerns about Pakistan and a possible increase in terrorism not only in and from Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan. In particular, the German government is extremely worried about not only Pakistan’s fight against terrorists, but also the increase in German converts to Islam going to Pakistan’s tribal areas to fight and receive training from militant groups.
But at the same time the divide between political parties and the average person in Germany on the issue of Afghanistan was palpable in every foreign policy conversation we had, both formal and informal. I asked each official what will happen if Germany’s increasingly active role in Afghanistan generates higher combat losses, and they almost uniformly said that what public support remains for the war will likely drop, and that the war–currently not an election issue–could easily become one.
— Andrew Lebovich