Berlin’s Canadian conundrum on the Hindu Kush

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

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.