The mission in Afghanistan has dominated German politics like no other intervention in the last few years. German soldiers died, the withdrawal was delayed. But the major political parties all draw different conclusions.
"Ban weapons exports! Stop all military missions abroad!" That's what the Left party's campaign posters say. It is the only party in parliament that is strictly opposed to the Bundeswehr - the German armed forces - interventions abroad. It wants to see all German soldiers withdrawn, including those in Afghanistan.
It is one of the Left party's core issues and one that features heavily in their campaign. "The issue is very close to our hearts," Jan van Aken, Left party member of parliament told DW. "My campaign advisors keep telling me foreign policy issues don't get votes, but I'm not so sure."
The Bundeswehr currently has 4,100 soldiers in Afghanistan. The Left party believes the mission has failed, while the other parties emphasize that NATO forces have helped with reconstruction and preparing Afghans to set up their own security and police forces, who are set to take over from foreign forces in 2014.
Regardless of its achievements or shortcomings, the mission in Afghanistan is seen as a watershed in the assessment of foreign missions.
Tough learning curve
What all parties seem to agree on is that the government and parliament underestimated the challenges the mission faced for too long. "I can't imagine another mission with troops from 50 countries and with more than 80 countries contributing in some shape or form, trying to stabilize and rebuild a whole nation," Social Democrat Hans-Peter Bartels told DW.
It was a very tall order anyway, "and all the aid and help coming from outside Afghanistan, has possibly made it harder for the country to find and identity," Bartels said.
While the mission was aiming high, its military equipment was rather poor at first. Germany sent a few hundred soldiers at the start of the intervention in 2002, to patrol the streets of Kabul. It was seen as a stabilizing short-term measure at the time, which turned out to be a massive miscalculation by the international community. Instead, the Taliban continued their terror campaign against the Afghan people, the new central government was weak, police and armed forces were in a dire state. That's when the German government said that German security interests were being defended in Afghanistan.
More and more soldiers from nearly 50 countries joined the ISAF force - in 2010, there were 130,000 troops, up from the original 5,000. But bringing peace to the country proved to be elusive.
It was former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who talked of the "war" in Afghanistan - eight years after the mission started. Now, it was looking increasingly like a tunnel with no exit.
Then conflict caused ructions back in Germany, too. In 2009, the ill-fated German-led air attack in Kunduz, which killed dozens of civilians, claimed the scalp of then-Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung.
"In future, we need a clear strategy on what we want to achieve with a mission," Christian Democrat member of parliament Roderich Kiesewetter says. "And we then need sufficient means to make it happen. For years, the Bundeswehr wasn't equipped to deal with combat situations," says Kiesewetter, who served in the armed forces himself. "It wasn't until many lives were lost that we started to change our focus."
At least 35 soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (as of August 27, 2013). The withdrawal from Afghanistan is under way and is to be completed by the end of next year.
The ruling Free Democrats also call for a clear strategy before any future interventions, the Green party wants to grant Afghan personnel affiliated with the Bundeswehr refuge once the withdrawal is complete. The fact that local security forces and police fear for their lives every day reflects the precarious situation in Afghanistan.
Future missions vague
The Bundeswehr is being turned into what is known in Germany as a "mission army," meaning that its focus will be on missions in conflict regions rather than on a purely defensive mandate.
But there has been no analysis of the foreign missions so far, and no party has set clear criteria for future missions. "We shouldn't feel immediately responsible for any given conflict, that would be a good start," Bartels tells DW.
"We should turn to regional alliances first to see what they can do," he adds, citing the African Union (AU) or ECOWAS, the West African economic community. "We can then support them," he says.
For the Christian Democrats, the pirate attacks on container ships off the coast of Somalia for example, are reason enough to mobilize the armed forces - meaning economic interests are at least implied in the party's manifesto.
The Social Democrats and the Greens opt to emphasize crisis prevention and conflict management. And the Left party goes a step further by saying that all the money saved by not sending troops abroad could be used to train peacekeeping specialists.
Security issues are hardly going to decide the elections, but they will likely have an impact on coalition building. The Left party does not want to be part of a government that allows foreign combat missions. It is one of the reasons why Social Democrats, Greens and the Left party are unlikely to form a coalition, even if they gained enough votes.