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Is Germany at ‘war’ in Afghanistan? Defence Minister says ‘no’
Germany’s defence minister gets his tongue in a twist every time he tries to explain why the German army is not in a “war” in Afghanistan, even though more and more German soldiers are coming home in coffins.
“If we were to speak of ‘war’ then we would only be focusing on the military aspect in the region and that would be a mistake,” Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said after three more German soldiers were killed on Tuesday, raising the total to 35.
“The goal of the German army is, alongside providing security, to help the country rebuild and with its development. We are not occupiers. Unfortunately there are situations where our soldiers have to fight. But we’re not looking for fights.”
Jung sounded even more opposed to the term “war” in a television interview: “That is not war. In a war you don’t build schools, you don’t set up the water and power supplies and you don’t build kindergartens and hospitals and you don’t train the military and the police.”
Jung is not in an enviable position as the conservative defence minister of a deeply pacifist country that has had to jump over some very long shadows of its troubled past before it was able to send troops abroad as part of international peacekeeping operations. That Germany is even part of a military deployment abroad and getting involved in combat despite the ghosts of its past is something that I could not possibly have imagined when I first came to the country in 1989.
Yet Germany has the third-largest contingent of NATO forces in Afghanistan — 3,720 soldiers concentrated in the north — even if the German forces are not allowed to shoot unless fired upon first and their Tornado aircraft are restricted to unarmed reconnaissance flights.
Public opinion is nevertheless overwhelmingly against Germany’s involvement in the NATO mission in Afghanistan — even though West Germany was a prime beneficiary of NATO’s unyielding support during the Cold War. With their post-World War Two indoctrination against war on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, it is hard to underestimate the deep anti-war sentiment throughout Germany — they are weaned on the notion of Nie Wieder Krieg! (War never again!). And Jung’s party, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, is eager to win the parliamentary elections in three months — and does not want any turbulence or a national debate about Afghanistan to get in the way.
Military leaders have quietly grumbled about how Merkel has largely avoided the whole Afghanistan complex and left Jung on his own to take the heat.
So that is why Jung, who last year was at the centre of a similar semantics debate about his reluctance to use the military-sounding term “fallen” (“Gefallene”) when talking about troops killed, is now soldiering on for his party and is forced to perform semantic backflips to avoid uttering the word “Krieg”. He repeatedly rejects any suggestion that German troops are involved in “war” even though his long answers to the simple question — “Is Germany at war?” — only invite more journalists to press him again and again for a clear answer.
The centre-left Social Democrats, partners in Merkel’s ruling grand coalition, are growing tired of Jung’s verbal gyrations. “The chancellor has to come out and explain to the people of Germany: this is a deployment in which people could get killed and we are in a war against terror,” said Peter Struck of the SPD, who leads the SPD’s parliamentary group and was a highly popular Defence Minister before Jung took over in 2005.
And the SPD’s Reinhold Robbe, parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, indirectly criticised Jung’s avoiding the term “war” once again this week. “It’s still being denied that the German army is fighting a war in the Hindukush,” Robbe said. “We’ve got to stop turning a blind eye to the facts.”
(Additional reporting by Dave Cutler in London)
PHOTO – Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung attends a session of the German lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz