Its an odd debate that unfolded in Germany yesterday. The Bundeswehrverband, the association of soliders fighting in the German armed forces, called upon the government to admit that Germany is at war in Afghanistan against the Taleban. For Germans its a big deal to go to war, and no government wants to go down in history with a record of having taken the country to its first war since World War II. But one should not be casual about the mission of Germans in Afghanistan: Former defense minister Peter Struck once said that Germany was defended at the Hindukush and the mission began after NATO declared an article V situation, after the twin towers fell in New York on 9/11. Of course, Germany is at war. And it should begin to take up the fight, because this country is fighting a war that it cannot afford to lose.
Meanwhile it is becoming increasingly clear that Berlin will have to take a decision on the future of its engagement in Afghanistan. It will ultimately have to alter its stance due to three major factors: First, Germany has deployed more troops to Afghanistan than other NATO countries, hoping to circumvent pressure from Washington to send troops to Iraq. If this rationale is to continue, national caveats might prove to be counterproductive. The mission is becoming increasingly defined by risk and less by success; if Berlin is to avoid the risk its troops would face in Iraq by sending them to Afghanistan, it might eventually have to put them into harms way.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the military situation simply calls for scaling up engagement. NATO has already requested more troops in the run-up to NATO's summit in Bucharest. If NATO members, and therefore Germany, do not commit more troops, al-Qaeda and the Taleban might find it easier to penetrate the entire country. To put it differently, if Germany does not give a helping hand in defeating the Taleban in the South, it will end up facing them in the North they have considered safe for so long.
Third, German politicians' efforts to describe the Bundeswehr's mission to Afghanistan as armed development assistance might have worked in the past years but certainly aggravate the necessity of explaining a German combat role in the future. Germans are beginning to wonder, whether their government has been over its head or simply misjudged the situation: Has the scope of the mission been bigger than they've been told immediately after 2001 or did the situation deteriorate despite Germany's engagement? If the latter happens to be the case, why should more troops make a difference? And if the scope of mission has really been bigger, why has the mission been characterised as armed development assistance in the first place? Either way, the political elite of Germany has a lot of explaining to do in the next months but with general elections scheduled for 2009 they are increasingly unwilling to do so, but shifting strategic realities on the ground and allied casualties might make a change in strategy and public stance inevitable.
What is striking is that Germany's politicians have not yet made the case for an expanded German commitment to Afghanistan. The war is by no means lost, the number of casualties has been comparatively low and although the situation might get tougher, what is needed at this juncture is not an exit strategy but rather vision and commitment. The army might be on duty abroad, German politicans still have to get it.