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Germans question Afghan war

By Damien McGuinness
BBC News, Berlin

Soldiers stand in front of photographs of German soldiers killed in Afghanistan during a commemoration service in Bad Salzungen, Germany, 2 July 2009
Germany is finding itself in tougher situations and taking casualties

For many Germans, deployment in Afghanistan meant delivering aid and reconstruction to the country's relatively peaceful north.

But now the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous. And Germany seems to have found itself unwillingly dragged into a war.

This is a pivotal moment in German military deployment abroad.

Berlin has just changed the rules of military engagement for troops abroad, giving soldiers more leeway to use lethal force. This is seen as important in northern Afghanistan, where attacks by Taliban insurgents are becoming more frequent.

In July, German troops carried out their first major military offensive against the Taliban. Dubbed Operation Adler (Eagle) the aim was to bring stability to an area near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in time for presidential elections on 20 August.

In a joint action with Afghan forces, 300 German soldiers used heavy firepower for the first time in a bid to flush out Taliban insurgents who are moving into the region.

Unpopular war

Back home, meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel last month awarded four soldiers the Bundeswehr's new cross of honour.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung and (from L to R) Staff Sergeant Jan Berges, Sergeant Major Markus Geist, Staff Sergeant Alexander Dietzen and Staff Sergeant Henry Lukacz of the German Bundeswehr on July 6, 2009 in Berlin, Germany
Merkel awarded four soldiers medals for bravery last month

It was the first time since the end of World War II that Germany had awarded medals for bravery - a remarkable change in attitude considering post-war Germany's traditional wariness of military symbols.

But although the German government looks set to get tough on the battlefield, popular opinion is heading in the opposite direction.

German military involvement abroad is extremely unpopular back home - and becoming more disliked all the time.

According to the most recent polls, almost 70% of Germans now want their troops to pull out of Afghanistan.

"The war is so unpopular that politicians won't even call it a war," said Alan Posener, political correspondent for the German daily newspaper Die Welt.

"We are now using armoured personnel carriers and light tanks to fight the Taliban. But politicians are saying, no, it's not a war, it's a peace mission. If they didn't say that, they would get flayed alive by their voters."

Thirty-five German soldiers have now died fighting in Afghanistan. Although this number is lower than US, British and Canadian fatalities, the sight of military funerals has taken Germany by surprise.

Many Germans feel they have been misled. They were originally told the mission was about humanitarian aid and reconstruction in relatively peaceful northern Afghanistan. Now the Taliban has moved in to that region, and suddenly the country is at war.

Political tightrope

With a general election due in Germany on 27 September, the campaign trail is a particularly difficult place for politicians to appear bellicose.

(The war) means an increase of hate and opposition
Paul Schaefer
Defence spokesman, Left Party

Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel, who supports German deployment and looks set to stay in power, is not taking any risks by talking war on the podium.

Meanwhile, her Social Democrat opponent Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is currently foreign minister, would look inconsistent if he suddenly took an anti-war stance.

But the smaller opposition parties, particularly the Green Party and the Left Party, are keen to win votes by calling for an immediate troop withdrawal.

"(The war) means an increase of hate and opposition," says Paul Schaefer, defence spokesman for the Left Party. "You can only realize a negotiation process and a reconciliation process within Afghanistan when there is a clear and concrete exit strategy."

Reluctant deployment

Some analysts in Germany warn, however, that it is dangerous to make political capital out of the conflict.

We're supposed to flick a switch and suddenly be proud of our military heroes again
Alan Posener
Political correspondent, Die Welt

They fear the Taliban will target German troops: an increase in military fatalities could make German deployment so unpopular that the government would be forced by public pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan.

But why are Germans so reluctant to send their troops into foreign combat?

"You have to go back a bit in German history, to the obvious place: the Second World War," said Mr Posener.

"We didn't only lose the war, in no uncertain terms. We were told it was our fault, and we were paying."

After half a century being told by the international community to be a non-threatening pacifist nation, Germany is now under pressure to become an effective military partner.

"Germans have had a hard time adjusting to all these mind-set changes that they are supposed to go through," said Mr Posener.

"Now we're supposed to flick a switch and suddenly be proud of our military heroes again."



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