August 29, 2010 |  Print this Article  Your Opinion  

Editorial Team

Topic Wikileaks Enlivens Debate Surrounding Afghanistan Deployment

Editorial Team: A new UN report detailing a shocking increase in the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and the mysterious murder of a German doctor helped keep the German contribution to ISAF in the headlines this August. So did the decision of TIME magazine to feature the disfigured face of an Afghan girl on its cover. The documents released by Wikileaks further fed into the debate, as ironically both opponents and supporters of the mission claimed them as evidence to buttress their respective positions.

Disquieting news from Afghanistan kept reaching Germany this summer: According to a UN report, the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose dramatically within the first half of the year: 55 percent more children and six percent more women died compared to the first six months in 2009. The total number of those killed or wounded rose by nearly one-third. While the Taliban was responsible for over three-quarters of the killings, the more aggressive strategy pursued by NATO troops bore the blame for the increasing deadliness of the conflict (Stern).

The German public was further unsettled by reports of the Taliban murder of a German eye doctor. The insurgents accused her of spying for the coalition troops and attempting to convert locals (ZDF). The killing brought on renewed debate on the need for NGOs to work in close concert with the military. Given limited resources, however, the Bundeswehr would find such a task insurmountable. Moreover, the perceived neutrality of aid workers remains their most effective defense (Die Zeit).

According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the event clearly showed how determined the fundamentalists are to not merely drive out the coalition troops, but to eliminate all Western influence in the country. As the paper put it, "blinded by hatred," the Taliban did not shrink from murdering those who merely came to their country to help ordinary Afghans keep their eyesight (FAZ).

Meanwhile, the Taliban's infamy also made the cover of TIME. The magazine featured the disfigured face of an Afghan girl, whose nose and ears had been cut off by extremists. Critics in the United States claimed that the campaign represented emotional blackmail in order to keep troops in Afghanistan indefinitely (Spiegel). German sceptics echoed this sentiment, claiming that the warmongers were exploiting that story along with the killing of the German physician (Mein Politikblog). Meanwhile, other observers in Germany maintained that TIME was utterly right to publish the unsettling photo in so far as it reflected the reality of life for Afghan women. However, they cautioned that the headline - "What happens if we leave Afghanistan" - ought to be rephrased to read: "What is happening while we are still in Afghanistan" (Asablog).

What was actually happening in Afghanistan moved to the forefront of the debate with the Spiegel's unveiling of the Wikileaks documents. According to the magazine, the leaks revealed that Germans were being naïve in their assumption that the situation in the North of Afghanistan, where the German contingent has been stationed, was relatively stable. Instead, the operational reality was one of a deteriorating security situation and near civil war (Spiegel).

Immediately following the publication, the charge surfaced that the situation on the ground is far worse than officials have admitted and that the German Government has not been keeping the Bundestag informed in an adequate manner. A member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament, Hans-Christian Stroebele of the Green Party, challenged the coalition government to be more forthcoming about "what the Bundeswehr is up to precisely in Afghanistan" (Focus).

Contrary to other members of the ISAF mission, the German Armed Forces operate under a mandate from Parliament that needs to be renewed annually. Parliamentarians now feel that they are being provided insufficient material to make informed decisions. In spite of the fact that the Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has made strides in making the operation more transparent for policymakers, Guttenberg "is risking his reputation" over the affair (Spiegel).

The most contentious issue in this context is the presence of the American elite task force 373 in the German camp at Mazar-i-Sharif. Its capture-and-kill tactics have garnered heavy criticism from German lawmakers, as they contradict the Bundeswehr's caveat (Die Zeit). The extent of German knowledge of and involvement in this aspect of operations is making the ISAF mission ever more controversial in Germany.

The opposition is far from united on the issue, however. The minority Left Party is uncompromising in its rejection of the ISAF mission and calls for a new vote on the Bundeswehr mandate that will force all parties in the Bundestag publicly to state their views (Die Linke). Stroebele of the Green Party lauds the Wikileaks revelations for their role in unveiling the truth about the deteriorating situation on the ground, as well as unmasking "the many lies told in the context of the Afghanistan mission" (Tagesschau).

Meanwhile, the main opposition party SPD is split on whether the Wikileaks scandal merits a reconsideration of its position. The Party's Spokesperson on Foreign Policy, Ralf Muetzenich, cautions that the actions of the Americans need to be considered in light of whether they comply with international law. On the other hand, the SPD's leading defense policy expert, Hans-Peter Bartels, insists that prolonging the mandate beyond 2011 is entirely justified. Jens Bullerjahn, a member of the SPD's executive committee, warns of the mistaken belief that it would be feasible to pull out of Afghanistan at this point (Die Zeit).

This stance is also espoused by the governing coalition. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ruprecht Polenz of the CDU, does not see the need to rewrite the history of Germany's engagement in Afghanistan, as he claims that the Wikileaks documents do not contradict the government's official position (FAZ). The German Brigadier General and Speaker for the ISAF mission, Josef Blotz, cautions that the personal information disclosed in the Wikileaks documents imperil the lives of those Afghans who trust and cooperate with ISAF. He calls Wikileaks "morally irresponsible" for thus endangering the mission and the lives of concrete individuals (Neue Osnabrueker Zeitung).

Under increasing pressure, the Defense Minister also denies that the documents reveal anything new. He considers claims that terrorists are being hunted down in illegal capture-and-kill operations to be exaggerated. However, Guttenberg concedes that he would welcome clearer legal guidelines for the German mission in Afghanistan. That debate is certain to continue now that parliamentarians are returning to Berlin following summer recess. (Sueddeutsche Zeitung).

Photo Licence: CC BY-NC-ND United Nations Photo 2

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