By Noah Barkin - Analysis
BERLIN (Reuters) - The uproar over a deadly NATO air strike in Afghanistan has shaken Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government weeks before an election and could herald an erosion
in Germany’s support for the mission after the federal vote.
All of the major German parties, except the far-left “Linke,” or Left party, support the deployment in Afghanistan, and because of that, analysts say it is unlikely the issue will have a major impact on the results of the September 27 election.
But pressure to rethink Germany’s 4,200-strong troop presence in Afghanistan is likely to grow over the coming months as a December deadline approaches for parliament to renew German participation in the six-year old NATO mission.
Skepticism about the deployment runs deep within Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, and calls for a reduction in German troop levels could increase if these parties join the Left in opposition after the election, as some polls suggest.
“I don’t think this debate will have a big influence on the election, but we could see critical voices grow louder after the vote, particularly within the SPD and Greens,” said Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
The air strike was called in on Friday by German troops stationed near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in what they said was a pre-emptive measure to ward off a possible suicide attack by Taliban fighters who had hijacked two fuel trucks.
Germany has said it believes 56 people were killed in the strike, which was carried out by a U.S. F-15 fighter jet, but Afghan authorities have said close to double that number may have perished.
One Afghan rights body said this week that 60-70 civilians died in the strike, the deadliest military operation involving German forces since World War Two and one which Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called a major “error of judgment.”
In Germany, where opposition to military conflict runs deep more than 60 years after the defeat of the Nazis, the incident has come as a shock, fuelling doubts about the country’s role in Afghanistan that mirror public concerns elsewhere.
In the United States and Britain, the top troop contributors ahead of Germany, public impatience with the war has grown steadily as Taliban insurgents step up attacks, pressuring President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Merkel appears to have calmed the domestic debate for now with a forceful speech in parliament on Tuesday in which she laid out the reasons why German troops are in Afghanistan and why they should stay.
German newspaper editorials on Wednesday praised her performance, saving their criticism for Germany’s NATO allies, notably the United States, for second-guessing the decision by the German troops to call in the air strike.
“Bin Laden himself couldn’t have shaken NATO’s solidarity any better,” wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday in a reference to comments by U.S. Commander Stanley McChrystal deflecting blame for the strike to the Germans.
Still, some commentators are questioning why Merkel failed to articulate her case for the Afghanistan mission earlier.
It took Merkel two years to visit Afghanistan after taking office in 2005 and she rarely mentions the mission there unless events on the ground demand a response as they did this week.
Until now, her government has refused to call the conflict a “war,” instead sugar-coating it to voters as a humanitarian mission focused on civilian reconstruction and police training.
That worked when the northern region where German troops are stationed was calm. But over the past year, the Taliban have been moving aggressively to reclaim their former northern fiefdoms, pushing the Germans into combat.
“The debate is so fierce right now because the ruling parties have failed to throw themselves fully behind this mission,” said Riecke. “The fact that Merkel gave her first big speech on Afghanistan only after she came under pressure shows it’s a topic she’d rather avoid.”
If Merkel manages to win re-election later this month, which polls suggest is likely, she will find it increasingly difficult to dodge the issue.
Already, calls are mounting within her conservative camp for a clear timeframe for withdrawing German troops.
Her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who first sent German troops to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, called this week for a pullout by 2015, an idea left-wing members of his SPD have latched onto.
This suggests a broader cross-party consensus for a pullout plan could emerge by the time parliament votes on extending the German mandate in December.
“In the end, it will depend on whether NATO is winning or losing,” said Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of respected German weekly Die Zeit. “More body bags and Taliban tactical victories will sour Germany on the war and, more decisively, the United States.”
Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Jon Hemming