Afghanistan Issue Erupts in German Electoral Campaign

Meanwhile, however, the chancellor candidate of one major German political party has indeed called for the withdrawal of German troops: namely, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democratic candidate and the current German foreign minister.

This might come as a particular surprise to readers of the New York Times. For according to the same above-mentioned report by Times correspondent Judy Dempsey, Steinmeier recently “echoed” the view of German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung that German troops could be in Afghanistan for another ten years “or longer.” According to the Times, Steinmeier is supposed to have done this in an interview with the Leipziger Volkszeitung. But what Steinmeier in fact said to the Leipziger Volkszeitung is the following: “I do not expect that we will be militarily present in Afghanistan for another ten years or longer.” (The “not” is emphasized for the benefit of Judy Dempsey and her editors, so that they will not miss it this time. That’s “nicht” in German.)

Moreover, only two days later (on August 22) Steinmeier let it be known that if elected chancellor he would establish a “concrete plan of action” (konkreten Fahrplan) for withdrawing German troops. He was careful to add, however, that this “concrete plan of action” would not include any precise date for a withdrawal.

The announcement came less than a week after Steinmeier had defended the German military presence in Afghanistan during a televised “town hall meeting” that has been variously described in the German press as a “flop” and a “debacle.” (For a full account, see my report here.) During the broadcast, Steinmeier faced hostile questioning from a former Bundeswehr officer who had survived a suicide attack in Afghanistan. The officer lambasted the German mission for its ambiguities and insufficiencies. Among other things, he asked why the latter was constantly described as a “peace mission” (Friedenseinsatz) when it is in fact a “Kriegseinsatz” -- literally, a “war mission” (or, in colloquial English, a “combat mission”). When Steinmeier attempted to clarify the Social Democratic position by contrasting the party’s support for the intervention in Afghanistan to its opposition to the American-led “adventure” in Iraq, the same soldier yelled out: “Afghanistan is an adventure!”

Steinmeier’s about-face on the Afghanistan issue is presumably a sign of desperation. With just four weeks to go before the elections, polls show his Social Democrats trailing the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Merkel by anywhere from 12 percent to 15 percent. When asked for whom they would vote if they could directly vote for the chancellor candidates, respondents express a preference for Merkel over Steinmeier by a nearly 3 to 1 margin.

It remains to be seen if catering to anti-war sentiment will improve the electoral prospects of Steinmeier and the Social Democrats. It was, after all, the government of the Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that sent German troops to Afghanistan in the first place. Steinmeier was Schröder’s chief of staff at the time.

Meanwhile, Judy Dempsey’s report suggests a useful rule of thumb on how best to employ the reporting of the New York Times on Germany: Whatever the Times reports, think the opposite and you will be closer to the truth.