Germany’s War in Afghanistan

Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

Germany’s War in Afghanistan

Germany’s defense minister begins to assert his influence on the war in Afghanistan.

With Chancellor Merkel not yet two months into her second term in office, already her newly appointed defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has changed the whole atmosphere of his department. It only took the mouthing of one word … “war”!

Having stationed over 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, Germany’s is the third-largest contingent in the international force deployed in that country seeking to stem the resurgence of the Taliban. Up to now, the German force has been largely restricted to the quieter northern and western sectors of the country. Recently, however, the Germans have come increasingly under attack. The rank and file of the German force are frustrated because of the previous Defense Ministry’s refusal to clearly delineate their role. The German government, rather than giving its troops a clear mandate that might clarify theirs as a true combat role, has used semantics, describing it as a “peace keeping” or “reconstructionist” role.

The Merkel government’s reluctance to yield to pressure from the United States to commit more troops to the Afghan theater has also tested transatlantic relations.

Enter the baron.

“Our engagement in Afghanistan has for years been a combat operation. But the feeling is—and not just among our troops—that the Taliban is waging a war against the soldiers of the international community,” zu Guttenberg declared to a journalist from the German daily Bild. In doing so he used a three-letter word that up to then had been eschewed by the German government and commentators alike. Until zu Guttenberg shot into the forefront of the German political scene, using the word “war” to describe any combat operation undertaken by German troops since the revival of Germany’s military following World War ii was simply taboo.

Now the baron has broken that taboo and become the darling of the German military overnight. In the clearest statement yet made by any German politician with regard to the Afghanistan conflict, zu Guttenberg observed: “In parts of Afghanistan, there are, without question, conditions that are like a war. I can understand any soldier who says, ‘There is a war in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter if it is foreign forces or Taliban terrorists who are attacking, wounding and killing me.’”

Then, giving a hint as to his approach to the German commitment in Afghanistan, zu Guttenberg declared, “One day, the Afghans will have to be able to provide for their own security. Then our military task will have been accomplished.”

It does not take a genius to read between the lines of that latter statement. If Germany’s new defense minister remains true to his word, Germany is in Afghanistan for the duration! That being the case, watch for a more robust commitment to Germany’s military force there.

There are two glaring reasons why those who pull the strings of German foreign policy would seek to remain in Afghanistan. The first is historic and relates to Germany’s need to be entrenched in proximity to Middle Eastern oil fields. Germany has been embedded in Afghanistan, believe it or not, since the 1920s. The German economy depends on imports of oil. Over 40 percent of the German-led EU’s oil comes from the “golden triangle” of nations surrounding the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan sits on the eastern perimeter of that triangle. The German navy is deployed in security roles in both the Mediterranean and off the Gulf. A land foothold in Afghanistan seals the ideal positioning of German forces at three strategic points around oil’s “golden triangle.”

The second reason has to do with Afghanistan being an ideal position from which to keep an eye on two nuclear hot spots—Israel and Pakistan—and a third potential nuclear power, Iran. In the latter country, Germany is the most significant inward investor, provider of technology and trading partner. For the better part of the past century, German intelligence networks, operating under the umbrella of the Federal Intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (bnd), have been embedded in and around Afghanistan.

The prospect of the extension of the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan has occupied German technocrats for some time. One German think tank declared as much one year ago: “German Defense Ministry reports have made known that the German government is buttressing the extension of the Afghanistan war to Pakistan through millions of euros for embedding civilians in military operations. According to these reports, Berlin and Brussels are earmarking large sums for ‘civilian military’ combat accessories in Pakistan” (, Sept. 24, 2008).

With the announcement by zu Guttenberg giving public recognition to the fact that Germany is actually engaged in war in Afghanistan, the time may well have come to turn the tide of public opinion in Germany in support of not only the war in Afghanistan, but future theaters of war that will be seen to be in Germany’s national interests.

Signaling that he is intent on asserting Germany’s interests in Afghanistan, this week Germany’s defense minister is paying his first visit to that country. As the U.S. administration dithers over whether or not to commit additional troops to Afghanistan, zu Guttenberg is intent on giving German defense policy a more clearly articulated direction in the Afghan theater. This is bound to cross over into the territory of the largely inexperienced Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and produce tension between the two in the not-too-distant future.

Meanwhile, zu Guttenberg has begun demanding that the Karzai government clean up its act, no doubt as a precondition to any further troop commitment from Germany to bolster that deeply corrupt U.S.-backed regime. Deutsche Welle reported that “After his meeting with Karzai, Guttenberg said the topics discussed had included the widespread corruption in the country and the style of governance” (November 12). “The Karzai government has to fulfill certain conditions,” he asserted, adding that “we must see successes.”

On the eve of his trip to Afghanistan, zu Guttenberg “called for an international conference on Afghanistan to set what he called ‘clear goals’ for the nato-led alliance’s deployment there. … ‘If we should have to realign our objectives after such a conference, then we would also have to think about our own capabilities there,’ Guttenberg said” (ibid.).

With the German parliament preparing to debate the renewal of the German army’s Afghanistan mandate over the next month, zu Guttenberg’s challenge will be to prepare the public for the possibility of additional troop commitments. This will need a robust exercise in propaganda if the defense minister is to obtain public support for such a move.

Being the sharp politician that he is, zu Guttenberg has covered his bases by today declaring, “We must not be shy about using the word exit strategy” (ibid.). And that is probably the only promise that he needs to make to validate any move to increase Germany’s military presence in Afghanistan. As long as any additional commitment carries with it a commitment to withdraw when the job is done, that may well be enough to gain him the support that he would need for such a move.

It goes without saying that the job that would have to be done would only be viewed as complete when Germany has achieved its long-term goals in Afghanistan.