A promise from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, that planned cuts in the defense budget would not affect the military mission in Afghanistan, sparked some outrage in the opposition during a stormy debate in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament on Friday.
But Westerwelle's message was unequivocal: The military presence was vital and would continue. "The German Afghanistan mission is not popular, but is, as it has always been, necessary to our own interests," he said. "Our fellow countrymen are performing their duties in Afghanistan so that we here can live safely, and we must thank them for that."
Westerwelle, along with other NATO foreign ministers, is attending an Afghanistan conference in Kabul on July 20. The fact that this was the first such conference to take place in Afghanistan was a sign, he said, that the West is steadily handing over responsibility to the Afghan people.
Since the last Afghanistan conference in London in January, Westerwelle claimed Germany had significantly increased its civilian aid to the Afghan people. "Germany's civilian aid for the people in Afghanistan has nearly doubled," he told the parliamentarians. "Since the beginning of the year, we have also nearly doubled the number of our police instructors on the ground."
Development or war?
Andreas Schockenhoff of the Christian Democratic Union - Westerwelle's coalition partner in government - also used his time at the podium to emphasize the progress made in the development of Afghanistan's civilian infrastructure. At this point, veteran Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele lost patience and called for permission to interrupt Schockenhoff.
"Like the foreign minister, you are talking about an issue as if it were about effective help for a developing country," Stroebele interjected angrily. "But the German people are not opposed to the government's Afghanistan policy because of the development projects. The German people are against this policy because a war is being fought there. Why don't you say what kind of war you think is right over there?"
Schockenhoff did not appreciate Stroebele's contribution. "I think it is unacceptable that you take any opportunity - whatever is on our agenda - to keep repeating the same slogans. We want successes in Afghanistan!" he said.
Still no word on withdrawal
After the United States and Britain, Germany is the third largest contributor of troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, with around 4,400 soldiers stationed in the increasingly violent north of the country.
With civilian and military casualties increasing, and peace apparently a long way off, Westerwelle was decidedly hazy on the date of any possible withdrawal. His best promise was a vague statement: "In this legislative period, we want to create the conditions to ensure that a step-by-step withdrawal of our military presence in Afghanistan can begin."
The opposition was quick to pounce on this lack of clarity, pointing out that the Netherlands, Poland and Great Britain have already set a date on their withdrawal. But the debate in Germany continues.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Martin Kuebler