German support for NATO's Afghanistan campaign began under a left-wing government and continued under a grand coalition. But with the public growing ever more skeptical, old political frontlines could start to reappear.
The German Bundeswehr has been involved in Afghanistan since 2001
NATO Commander General Stanley McChrystal arrived in Berlin on Wednesday for for talks with German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg - a visit that had to be postponed because volcanic ash grounded flights throughout Europe.
McChrystal praised German troops for their work in the north of Afghanistan, adding that the Bundeswehr deployment to the troubled country had met with "great success."
He said Germany "remains a very important partner for our work in Afghanistan," and that 2010 would be a "critical year" in efforts to stabilize the country.
He would have been pleased to hear that, despite the deaths last week of four German soldiers in northern Afghanistan, Germany intends to beef up its military presence in that country. The Defense Ministry has announced that it will upgrade the armored vehicles used in the conflict and could even commit more troops, as the US increases the size of its forces in Afghanistan.
But unless he was particularly well briefed, McChrystal may have failed to register the potentially explosive, political rumblings in Germany about the government's continuing commitment to the Afghanistan campaign.
In the most recent public opinion poll, 62 percent of those asked said they wanted their country to withdraw its troops from the troubled region - that's more than ever before in surveys on public attitudes to NATO's Afghanistan campaign.
It's also a solid majority, and wherever there's a solid majority, there will be politicians trying to win it over. In this case, it's the Social Democrats (SPD), who may be mulling over a stunning reversal of policy.
War of Words and the Word "War"
The Left Party has lured former SPD voters opposed to government policy
Signs of a possible SPD shift have become a spat over semantics.
Early last week, at a memorial service for three other Germans soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Guttenberg and Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Afghanistan conflict as a "war."
In response, Social Democratic head Sigmar Gabriel countered that if Germany's military engagement was a war and not participation in a UN-sanctioned mission, then the government would have to seek a new parliamentary mandate for troop deployment.
Gabriel was roundly criticized in the German press for what was perceived as pedantry and opportunism.
"Soldiers don't care whether the lengthy and heated skirmishes bear up to the legal definition of what is 'war,'" wrote journalist Steffen Hebestreit in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. "For them, it sure as hell feels like war."
Conversely, the pacifist Left Party - which arose out of the Communist Party in former East Germany and which has siphoned off left-wing SPD support in recent years - said it welcomed "Gabriel's suggestion that the SPD might oppose the war in a vote over a parliamentary mandate."
That statement was probably more provocative than anything else. Gabriel did not announce a fundamental shift in policy any more than Merkel and Guttenberg were trying to revise the status of the Afghanistan conflict in their remarks.
But the discussion did highlight political faultlines that haven't been seen in German politics since the start of NATO's Afghanistan campaign in 2001.
The end of bipartisanship?
Recent German casualties have made the military campaign even less popular
With more than 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, Germany is the third-largest of the allied forces there after the United States and Britain. The German military engagement began under a Social Democratic-Green government, after then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder promised "unlimited solidarity" with the US in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Afghanistan represented the first time that the post-World War II German army was deployed on foreign soil, and the parliamentary mandate allowing that deployment broke with a long tradition of pacifism among Social Democrats and Greens.
Germany military engagement continued under the grand coalition between the SPD and the Conservative CDU-CSU under Merkel, who was elected in 2005. That uneasy political arrangement essentially precluded the Social Democrats from changing their policy on Afghanistan, no matter how many people within the German populace in general, or the party grassroots in particular, had grown skeptical about the length of the military mission.
The election of the current Conservative-Free Democrat government last year meant that the SPD went into the opposition for the first time in seven years. The incentives for bipartisan cooperation with the Conservatives are gone, and indeed most political analysts expect the SPD to move to the left in an attempt to regain some of the support it has lost in recent years.
Significant choice of speaker
Gabriel, left, and not Steinmeier has more say in the SPD
On Thursday, one day after McChrystal's visit, Merkel is scheduled to address the German parliament on the topic of Afghanistan.
Normally, the head of the Social Democrats' parliamentary fraction would be the one to respond to her address. That would be Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and deputy chancellor in the previous grand coalition and a supporter of Germany's military presence in Afghanistan.
But the SPD plans to have Gabriel speak instead - a decision the Conservatives are reading as a sign of reorientation.
"Steinmeier is apparently being made into a lame duck," Hans-Peter Friedrich, a regional group leader for the Conservatives' Bavarian sister party, the CSU, told reporters.
Others say Gabriel will seize the microphone precisely because he is positioning himself as a possible opponent to Germany's military activities in Afghanistan.
"I'm very irritated by what I've heard in the past few days, especially from the SPD chairman," Peter Altmaier, a CDU state secretary, told dpa news agency. "In trying to extend the mandate, we tried hard to enable the SPD to support the measure."
So at roughly the same time that Germany's defense minister will be conferring with a leading general of their top ally, Germany's chancellor will be stating the case for a former consensus policy that may soon split Germany along traditional party lines.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge