A political paradox: polling frequently shows that more than three-quarters of citizens trust Chancellor Merkel's foreign policy decisions. Both Merkel and the Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, regularly secure the top spots on the list of most popular politicians. However, with regard to their leaders' most important and riskiest foreign policy venture, Germans refuse to pledge loyalty. A majority of Germans object to the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan. An even more categorical "No" is given in response to whether the Bundeswehr should enhance its engagement in Afghanistan. Self-critical advocates of the deployment in the German Bundestag admit that the public relations strategy regarding Afghanistan is a failure.
It is not just a case of a public relations failure. Germany lacks a serious and responsible debate on its engagement in Afghanistan. The upcoming discussion on the extension of the Bundeswehr mandate, taking place at the beginning of October, provides the last opportunity to correct this problem. Afterwards, the populism of the upcoming general election in 2009 will inhibit any serious debate.
What can be done? Following the Canadian example of convening an independent Afghanistan commission led by former politicians and experts provides no effective solution. Such a commission would quickly be labeled the "Hartz Commission for the Hindu Kush" - the certain death knell for any such undertaking. Instead, leadership should be demonstrated by the two pivotal constitutional powers: the executive branch and Parliament. All members of the government should intensify their engagement - more trips to Afghanistan; more time for detailed discussions with the troops, police, aid workers, as well as with local Afghani representatives of all groups; and, based on this, a more candid dialogue with the German public. At the same time, the main task lies with the members of Parliament. It is an important strength of the German system that the Bundestag has the key decision-making role concerning troop deployment. The German Parliament must take full advantage of this role. Many members of Parliament have invested heavily in understanding the situation in Afghanistan. This is all the more remarkable given that they tend to get little credit for this from their voters. However, they have not managed to turn the Bundestag into the forum where parliamentarians, before the eyes of the public, grapple with the direction and strategy of the Afghanistan engagement. So far, the public has not followed the Bundestag deliberations closely.
In order to change this dynamic, the Foreign, Defense, and Development Committees have a central role to play. Together, they should hold public hearings on Afghanistan that would subsequently lead to concrete targets and benchmarks for the Afghanistan deployment. The Bundestag has the constitutional right to call upon every member of the government as well as practitioners and experts to bear witness in hearings. Based on the hearings, the parliament should decide on concrete goals and targets to be included in the decision regarding the renewal of the mandate. Parliamentarians should then hold the government accountable for the fulfillment of these goals - and revisit these goals periodically when deciding on the future of the mandate. This should become the standard operating procedure for all decisions on foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr.
In this context, the media has a particular role to play. Currently, in-depth coverage of the Afghanistan deployment is limited to a few quality papers and TV programs. The mass media is limiting its reporting to a few sensationalist stories following the body count. This needs to change for the "fourth power" to live up to its responsibilities. The media should demand answers to the key questions from the government: what are the lessons learned from the military and civilian engagement so far? What goals do we want to achieve in Afghanistan and the broader region and in what time frame? What are the successive foci for our military, civilian, and diplomatic priorities? What would be the consequences of a withdrawal? These questions should also be at the center of the hearings and debates in the Bundestag.
Afghanistan is a case in point. Germany needs an informed and honest debate concerning the foreign deployment of the Bundeswehr and its broader role in global peace and security policy. Such a debate must have a long-term perspective and should clearly outline all necessary risks and resources.
The present debate lacks all of this. Only cynics can be satisfied with this condition. Both supporters and opponents of the deployment must help to improve the German Afghanistan debate. We owe it to our soldiers, police and civilian aid workers, our allies, the Afghanis - and our democracy.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Djörn Eversteijn: NATO and the Forgotten War
- Bernhard Lucke: It is Time to Withdraw From Afghanistan
- Marek Swierczynski: NATO is Trapped in Afghanistan