Doubts raised on Afghan mission ahead of German vote

24th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, still a respected figure in national politics at age 90, said Wednesday that the aims of Western forces in Afghanistan were "ever blurrier" and "not achievable."

Berlin -- Days before German elections, an influential former chancellor slammed on Wednesday the country's unpopular mission in Afghanistan, a foreign policy headache for whoever wins power.

Helmut Schmidt, West German chancellor between 1974 and 1982 and still a respected figure in national politics at age 90, said that the aims of Western forces in Afghanistan were "ever blurrier" and "not achievable".

To stabilise Afghanistan, "apparently even 200,000 soldiers are not enough," double the size of the current international contingent, Schmidt told the Die Zeit weekly.

The top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has warned President Barack Obama that without additional US troops the NATO-led mission will face defeat at the hands of Islamist insurgents.

Germany has around 4,200 troops there, the third largest foreign contingent, mostly in the north where conditions have been peaceful compared to the more volatile south and east, allowing a greater focus on reconstruction.

But violence has spiked in recent months, with militants stepping up attacks and forcing the German contingent into more and more skirmishes. Thirty-five German troops have died since 2001, including four this year.

The mission began under former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose Social Democrat (SPD) party is now junior coalition partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).

Sunday's election is expected to return Merkel to power, according to opinion polls, though probably in a new-look coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats in place of the demoralised and divided SPD.

With all the main parties supporting the deployment except for the far-left Die Linke, Afghanistan has failed to register as much of an issue in campaigning.

This is the case even after a US air strike this month ordered by a German commander, which reportedly killed dozens of civilians, and recent threats by Islamic extremists to pull out its troops or face attacks on its soil.

A poll in the Handelsblatt daily on Wednesday showed voters much more concerned with issues such as unemployment, education and the recession than with Afghanistan.

"Voters vote for other things," Henning Riecke from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told AFP. "They look out for jobs, at the performance of Germany in the global (financial) crisis and social stability."

"We have had more than 30 casualties, we have had the first real fights, with tanks, since World War II," Peter Keller from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation said. "But this has failed to cause even the slightest stir."

Polls show, however, that a majority of Germans want troops to come home, and Afghanistan could well move centre stage in the next parliament, particularly if the election leaves the SPD in opposition.

"I think the SPD would change course on many levels, turning further to the left and really break with the Schroeder legacy, and that would include the stance on Afghanistan," Keller said.

Allegations of widespread fraud in August's presidential election in Afghanistan have also undermined support for the mission.

Merkel has tried to head off future problems with a push, backed by France and Britain, for an international conference to pressure the Afghan government to assume more responsibilities so that coalition forces can go home.

If there is not sufficient effort to build up the Afghan army and police, "the US will have a second Vietnam, and Germany its first," the Berliner Zeitung daily said in an editorial on Wednesday.

The German election campaign also saw police on Wednesday say that they had raided overnight the Berlin headquarters of Germany's neo-Nazi NPD party after it sent letters to ethnic minority candidates telling them to "go home."

The letters sparked outrage from mainstream politicians who called for renewed efforts to outlaw the NPD, which has no seats in the national parliament but in two of Germany's powerful regional assemblies.

The NPD is on the verge of bankruptcy and has next to no chance of winning a seat in Sunday's election, polls show.

Simon Sturdee/AFP/Expatica

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