I’ve been in Berlin for a few days now in the run-up to the general election that takes place on Sunday. One of the remarkable things about the campaign, which has been lacklustre even by German standards, is the way that the two leading candidates, the Christian Democrat chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democrat foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who have shared power in a grand coalition for the last four years, have carefully avoided discussing the key issues facing Germany. Case in point: the war in Afghanistan.
Since Colonel Georg Klein, the commander of German forces in Afghanistan, called in an air strike in Kunduz that killed between 50 and 100 people, including an unknown number of civilians, at the beginning of this month, Germans have begun to realize that the Bundeswehr is involved not just in reconstruction but in a war in Afghanistan. A majority of Germans now want to withdraw their troops from the NATO mission in Afghanistan. According to the Spiegel this week, German generals were fully aware of how much both Merkel and Steinmeier feared an attack on German troops in the run-up to the election, which may help to explain why Klein was so quick to call in an air strike even though there was no immediate danger.
However, Merkel and Steinmeier have almost completely avoided talking about Afghanistan during the election campaign. Merkel gave a speech immediately after the air strike in Kunduz, but since has said little about the war since since then. Steinmeier responded to the air strike by putting together a paper that laid out a plan for the eventual withdrawal of the 4,200 German troops in Afghanistan, but has also avoided the subject since then, even though he criticises Merkel at election rallies for not saying no to the Iraq war like his former boss Gerhard Schröder did in 2002. The only parties that have talked about Afghanistan regularly during the election campaign are the Greens and the Linke, or Left party, which is demanding an immediate withdrawal of German troops (“Raus aus Afghanistan!” declare its election posters here in Berlin).
Meanwhile German troops remain in Afghanistan, where the conflict is rapidly getting more and more explosive and both German and Afghan casualties are increasing, without anyone making the case to the German public for why they should be there. What happened in Kunduz earlier this month suggests that this approach may even be costing lives needlessly. When I interviewed Joschka Fischer in Berlin for my book last summer, he criticised German politicians and in particular Merkel for a lack of leadership on Afghanistan. I think he’s right.