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Analysis: Is Germany fighting a "war" in Afghanistan?

German Defense Minister zu Guttenberg may have gotten more than he bargained for by opening debate on Afghanistan.

A German Bundeswehr army soldier from the 263rd paratrooper unit of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) keeps watch during a mine-sweeping operation before being attacked by insurgents in Chahar Dara on the outskirts of Kunduz, Dec. 16, 2009. One German soldier was seriously injured. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — When Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was handed Germany's defense portfolio, the young, aristocratic rising star of the German political establishment knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. Zu Guttenberg had long coveted the defense ministry, and he planned on using the post to encourage more honest public discussion about the conflict in Afghanistan. That would be the necessary prelude to a decision about whether Germany could contribute more troops to the NATO mission

By some measures, he has been a success. Less than two months into zu Guttenberg's tenure, the military mission in Afghanistan has finally become the subject of serious political debate in Berlin. It's just not been in the way that zu Guttenberg had hoped: Germany’s public reckoning has come by way of a scandal that threatens to ensnare the government in months of parliamentary investigation. Pressured by the United States for more troops, Angela Merkel had originally asked for more time, pointing to an international Afghanistan conference in January as the decisive benchmark for her government. Now, it seems that Germany's bitter domestic fight over the Afghan mission will last well past that deadline.

The scandal concerns an aerial attack ordered by German Gen. Georg Klein on two Taliban-hijacked trucks on Sept. 4 in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, where German troops are based. The bombardment resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians — a tragic result, utterly contrary to the strategy of the NATO mission. Klein's ill-fated battlefield decision undoubtedly deserves scrutiny, and judging by the harsh conclusions of NATO's official investigation of the incident it seems to merit institutional censure or punishment.

But the political soul-searching that Germany has experienced in the months since the bombing go beyond those military measures. One cabinet secretary — Frank Jung, the former defense minister — as well as the country's highest-ranking military official, Wolfgang Schneiderhahn, have already tendered their resignations, and a parliamentary investigation threatens zu Guttenberg's job as well. It also promises to put Chancellor Angela Merkel on the hot seat.

The bombing's long political echo plays against the background of a larger question that's gone unanswered in Germany: whether the mission in Afghanistan can, and should, properly be called a "war." Ever since German troops first entered the country, German politicians have suggested it's not — or at least, they've preferred to stick to the letter of the United Nations mandate that authorized the mission, which defined it as an engagement to strengthen and provide support to the Afghan government. Germany's soldiers were sent to participate in an exercise of nation-building; violence was supposed to be an expected, but incidental, aspect of the engagement.

As the years passed, and the dangers of the mission became more manifest, Germany's politicians stuck disingenuously with the “support and strengthening” description. They claimed they had no choice: They were constrained, they would say, not for attribution, by the suffocating constraints of contemporary German history, law and culture.