Afghanistan Issue Erupts in German Electoral Campaign

“German Party Calls for Plan for Removal of Troops From Afghanistan.”

Thus ran the headline in the August 20 edition of the New York Times. The article was published one day after a similar Reuters dispatch, which, given the almost identically translated German quotes, is presumably the source for the Times “scoop.” The party in question is the Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- the most likely coalition partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the event that the latter win the upcoming German elections in September.

As it so happens, Jürgen Koppelin, an FDP member of the German Bundestag, had indeed been quoted in the tabloid Bild saying that the next German government should formulate an “exact plan” for withdrawing German troops from Afghanistan in the coming years. But perhaps the Times and Reuters ought to have been somewhat more circumspect about taking Koppelin’s opinion for that of the party as such. The Bild report identified Koppelin as an FDP “defense expert.” But in fact he is just one of some twenty-one members of the FDP’s parliamentary working group on foreign affairs and security issues and the group’s official spokesperson on security matters is not Koppelin, but rather Birgit Homburger.

In any case, just three days after the Times report was published a more authoritative voice in the FDP weighed in on the same issue: namely, party chair Guido Westerwelle. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Westerwelle was asked how long German troops would have to remain in Afghanistan. Far from calling for a rapid withdrawal, Westerwelle strongly defended the German presence in the country:

Nobody likes to send soldiers on foreign deployments. ... So every reasonable politician wants to end foreign Bundeswehr missions as soon as possible. But Afghanistan cannot be permitted to become a base for terrorists again. [Our presence] in Afghanistan is, above all, about defending our security here in Germany. ... It would be wrong to withdraw now, since tomorrow Kabul would then be the capital of world terrorism yet again.

Westerwelle’s position is perfectly consistent with that of Chancellor Merkel, who in an August 21 interview with the FAZ had said essentially the same thing. Defending the notion that German security interests are at stake, the chancellor noted that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid and London bombings, as well as the members of the so-called Sauerland cell, had all trained in the region. (The members of the Sauerland cell had planned attacks on American military installations in Germany. They are presently on trial in Düsseldorf.) “In a situation that is very difficult for German troops, it is not helpful to call into question the purpose of the mission,” she added.