Monday, September 7, 2009

The Afghanistan Consensus Holds - For Now

After Friday's German-led air strike on two hijacked fuel trucks near Kunduz in Afghanistan, ISAF, the Afghan government, Germany's Ministry of Defense, peace activists, and basically everybody else are still at loggerheads over assessing the impact of the attack, which killed dozens of Taliban and an unknown number of civilians. Less than three weeks before the general election, you would think that this debate could maybe translate into some juicy campaign drama. But it doesn't. The great basic SPD-CDU-FDP-Greens consensus on Afghanistan still holds while the Left party finds it hard to intensify its anti-Afghanistan rhetoric which was already pretty strong before the incident.

Crucially, the SPD leading figures, including Foreign Minister Steinmeier, party chief Müntefering, and Andrea Nahles from the left wing of the party, stood up defending the Afghanistan mission, thereby preventing a lingering anti-war sentiment from finding breeding ground in the political mainstream. All three of them rejected a call for a specific time line for a German withdrawal issued by ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder, once again showing his unfailing instinct for popular sentiment, had used an SPD campaign rally to ask for withdrawal by 2015.

Schröder knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to at least temporarily resolve the SPD's policy dilemma on Afghanistan which stems from the fact that the pacifist heart of the party is in conflict with its realist brain. A large majority of SPD voters (and of the public, for that matter) would like to see German troops leaving Afghanistan rather sooner than later. Unwavering so far, the SPD (which led Germany to the Hindu Kush in 2001/2002) is sticking to its original position on the war, arguing that this mission is serving Germany's security at home.

By asking for withdrawal at a later time, Schröder was trying to bridge the gap between both positions. He was attempting to establish the Social Democrats as the party that provides a perspective for getting out without unreasonably undermining Steinmeier's pro-Afghanistan position. As much as I hate saying this, this was a pretty clever move, and I am pretty sure that it prepares the ground for an SPD shift of positions after the elections. It was also pretty clever to let this new position be inserted into the debate by Schröder whose anti-Bush stand during the Iraq war made him the hero of the pacifist mainstream in Germany. Schröder has added a strategically valuable nuance to his party's profile while granting Steinmeier plausible deniability.

Even after the air strikes in Kunduz, Afghanistan is no campaign issue. But pressure is building up to revisit the issue after the elections. For the SPD, Afghanistan will be one of two make-or-break issues in its relationship with Die Linke (the other being social welfare legislation and Hartz IV). And in turn, the relationship with Die Linke will be the make-or-break issue for the SPD's political future. It might be true that this is the dullest campaign in history. But it looks like it will be morphing into one of the most interesting post-elections periods of all time.

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