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.

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.