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Germans question involvement in Afghanistan

Omid Nouripour’s effort to keep German troops in Afghanistan is an uphill battle, and he knows it.

Not only must the Berlin lawmaker fight his country’s aversion to an increasingly bloody war once billed as a peacekeeping effort, but he must buck his own Green Party’s antiwar platform.

“We can’t pull out,” Nouripour, a German of Iranian descent, said in an interview this week amid a controversy that eventually saw the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan replaced. “The Afghan people need us.”

His argument has proved a hard sell to the Germans, reflecting what poll numbers say are persistent doubts here and across Europe about the continued engagement in Afghanistan. Four of five Germans oppose their country’s involvement in the war, according to polls.

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“People are getting cynical,” said Walter Posch, a Middle East and Africa specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The majority attitude is that whether or not Germany leaves, it won’t get any better.”

Germany expects to have 5,350 troops in the Afghan theater by next month, making it the third-largest contributor to the NATO force there, behind the U.S. and Britain. Forty-two German soldiers have died in the conflict.

The war has already cost one leading German politician his job. Last month, President Horst Koehler resigned after coming under intense criticism for appearing to defend Berlin’s commitment to Afghanistan as a way “to protect our interests, such as ensuring free trade routes or preventing regional instabilities, which are also certain to negatively impact our ability to safeguard trade, jobs and income.”

Germans were aghast. Many had clung to the notion that their country’s involvement in Afghanistan was a peacekeeping exercise, even though politicians recently had begun to refer to it as a war. The difference is more than semantics in a post- World War II Germany built on a foundation of pacifism and democracy.

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A “red-green” coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party originally authorized the troop presence in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Back then it was a feel-good way to help an ally under assault and support the Afghan people.

But German involvement in a September 2009 U.S. airstrike on two fuel tanker trucks, which killed 147 Afghans, mostly civilians, spurred soul-searching. What was Germany doing in Afghanistan?

Feeding the angst and debate, televised ceremonies and speeches accompany the return of each slain German soldier.

“With every incident of a dead soldier, the discussion bursts out on how do we get out,” said Konstantin Kosten, program officer at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Far-left groups that have recently gained in parliamentary and local elections say they’re convinced that opposition to the war in Afghanistan is second only to concerns about the economy in contributing to their successes.

“History shows that a war in Afghanistan is not winnable,” said Dagmar Enkelmann, parliamentary leader of the Left, the German political grouping rooted in the former Communist Party of East Germany.

“Germany started there as a humanitarian operation,” she said during an interview in her office. “Now, it’s slipping deeper and deeper into a war. At first the German army was liked. That’s no longer true.”

German politicians reacted mutely to the Obama administration’s replacement Wednesday of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus as U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

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“McChrystal was a very reliable partner. I regret not being able to work with him any longer,” Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said on a visit with German troops in the Horn of Africa, according to news agencies. “I expect there to be no change in the strategy with this move.”

The few outspoken advocates for remaining in the conflict say the war’s ultimate objectives need to be better explained to the German people.

“There’s no political leadership on that question,” said Nouripour, who frequently attends debates to discuss the situation in Afghanistan with constituents.

He contends that leaving now would dishonor Germany’s commitments to its Afghan and U.S. partners and that fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda and building up the Afghan state are legitimate goals.

“The audience starts out 80-20 in favor of withdrawal,” he said of the debates. “By the time it’s over, it’s 60-40 in favor of withdrawal. I’m still losing, but not as badly.”

daragahi@latimes.com


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