DW's Nina Werkhaeuser says Germany needs to do a better job explaining to its citizens that the mission in Afghanistan is going to get worse before it gets better.
When members of the federal government speak about the German mission in Afghanistan, they like to tell moving stories of help and appreciation.
Recently German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the German parliament about village elders in the Pamir Mountains. The men undertook a trip lasting for days, Steinmeier recounted, in order to ask German soldiers to help build a school.
The choice of this story is very revealing. It leads to the question of why heavily armed foreign soldiers are still needed to fulfill basic needs in Afghanistan. Schools should be seen to by the Afghan government, the provincial governor, or aid organizations -- not NATO. The soliders of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are there for security and stability though they can neither produce it, nor permanently guarantee it; certainly not in the south, and only occasionally in the north.
The government has been trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by only talking about the nice things that happen. But that only works until one Afghan asks a German soldier to help build a school, while another Afghan attacks him with explosives.
So who is a friend and who is a foe? It's difficult to differentiate between the two in a mission where the military is so utterly dependent on the trust of the local population. If that trust is lost then the success stories about reconstruction quickly become passé. Soon it may just be about preventing a backslide into chaos with brute force.
This fall the German government will increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by 1,000 because they aren’t able to get by with the 3,500 soldiers stationed in northern Afghanistan. German soldiers have for years camped in the relatively calm north of the country to avoid NATO's increasing demands.
These days the north isn’t exactly a safe model region. Even there the German army has to increasingly deal with rockets flying through the air, hidden explosives and suicide bombers around every corner.
Under these circumstances the German government's reconstruction rhetoric just doesn't work anymore. A lot suggests that the next American president -- whoever that may be -- will be blunt with European allies. He will demand more troops for Afghanistan in order to once and for all destroy the Taliban, who are also known to have carried out attacks on the German military.
Given the explosive nature of the Afghanistan debate, the German government has given itself a kind of grace period: This fall they will extend the mission by 14 months instead of 12, so that it won’t be a controversial issue during the 2009 parliamentary elections.
However, they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that until then they will be able to peddle stories of freshly dug wells and happy school children.
The entire ISAF force, including German troops, are in the middle of a combat mission which will get more difficult as the months go by. It would be better to finally talk openly about it.
Nina Werkhäuser covers foreign, defense and security policy affairs for DW-RADIO. (mrm)