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

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.

The German public is one of the most pacifist in the world. They bear not only the historic guilt for the horrors of the second world war, but also distinct memories of living at the crossroads of a potential nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War. Policymakers in Berlin have also cited the legal restrictions on the use of the word “war”: The German armed forces were anchored in the West German constitution not as a force to fight offensive wars, but strictly to defend the homeland against attack.

But, the German political establishment's reluctance to treat Afghanistan as a “war” is a semantic choice with practical significance. Foremost, there's a greater burden placed on German soldiers. It means they don't gain much public recognition for their efforts, because they are rarely framed as sacrifices made in the name of national interest and security, but rather as deeds intended to fulfill international commitments.

There are operational constraints as well. Indeed, German soldiers in Afghanistan have a card in the pocket of their uniforms that outlines their strict “rules of engagement” — above all, that they can only use lethal force when they or other civilians are in immediate fatal danger. It's a reminder that they're always bound by the breadth of German civil law: Each time an Afghan is killed by a German soldier, the circumstances are investigated by a public prosecutor in Germany for potential criminal wrong-doing.

But, in addition to placing those stresses on their soldiers, Germany's politicians have also inadvertently tied their own hands. Without the moral imperative of a war being fought in the national interest, German policymakers have struggled to carve out the budget and resources the mission demands. And Germany's policymakers have had to consider fundamental changes in battlefield strategy in order to keep up with an enemy that doesn't pay credence to their hand-wringing: Numerous unattributed reports from recent months have suggested the German military had already shifted toward a more aggressive posture in Afghanistan. But, with the German public having been sold a humanitarian mission, those changes in policy had to be made in the shadows, not as the product of the give-and-take of open parliamentary discourse.

The current public outrage is a product of this steady, but unacknowledged drift in elite opinion. Gen. Klein admitted to his superiors that he had requested the aerial attack in Kunduz with the intention of killing the Taliban fighters who were in the vicinity. Zu Guttenberg himself originally felt comfortable calling the attack “militarily appropriate.”

That may have rung true in the halls of Defense Ministry where the realities of the Afghan conflict have long been absorbed. But to the public at large, zu Guttenberg's seeming praise of the civilian casualties could come across as nothing but utterly tone deaf. To a public that didn't know its military was ever granted authority to go on the offensive, the attack was utterly shocking.

Zu Guttenberg's comments have served as a ripe occasion for opportunistic opposition parliamentarians who have started the public investigation into the attack and the government's response to it. Meanwhile, a federal prosecutor is investigating whether Klein may be culpable of war crimes — a process that could settle, once and for all, whether Germany is involved in a war in the first place.

Zu Guttenberg's impulse upon taking office as defense minister — to close the gap between the public perception of the Afghan mission and its on-the-ground realities — may have been an honorable one. He was certainly correct to have used openly the word “war” as a descriptor of the Afghan conflict, even if only to describe his soldiers' perception of their mission.

But, it now appears that zu Guttenberg may not survive this current scandal, because he didn't realize that the fateful gap was probably too wide to have been bridged by rhetoric alone. And Angela Merkel, who had been hoping for a productive public debate in the coming months about sending more troops to Afghanistan, will have to consider her own judgment as well: namely, whether she was naive to think she could condense into four months a task that she had neglected for the previous four years.