Losing Friends

America is close to losing some of its key allies. A rift has formed with Germany over Afghanistan, and Europe is searching for an exit strategy. Will Obama do the same?

President Obama may soon have a German problem on his hands that could vastly complicate his Afghanistan conundrum. President Bush had one in 2002, when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won reelection by campaigning against war in Iraq. Now Afghanistan has become a hot-button issue in a new federal election, as Christian Democrat Angela Merkel tries to win a second term.

Merkel's defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, is coming under fire for having claimed that there were no civilian casualties in the bombing raid of two fuel tankers in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. A German commander in Afghanistan gave the order for the strike, and the number of civilians dead remains unclear. The German Defense Ministry called the raid "militarily necessary and correct," which has landed Jung in a war of words with General Stanley A. McChrystal who is having none of it. McChrystal apologized to Afghan president Hamid Karzai for the heavy loss of civilian life. Meanwhile, Merkel, speaking in Parliament today, defended the German military.

The result is that Germany is in an uproar. Given the strong pacifist sentiments inside the country, the conservative-led coalition government has had to inch its way into committing forces in Afghanistan. The bungled bombing raid now gives the German Left, ever a potent force, a golden opportunity to argue that there's no cogent reason that the country should commit any forces abroad, especially if the hated United States is leading the charge. Already there are calls on the left for a special parliamentary session to examine Germany's role in Afghanistan.

Nothing could be more unwelcome for Merkel, who has been trying to win a quiet victory. Her whole campaign strategy has been based on the idea that there shouldn't really be an election battle. Instead, she would promise the Germans "no experiments," in the vein of Konrad Adenauer's 1950s campaign slogan, and roll to victory, forming a new coalition government with either the Social Democrats or the Free Democrats. 

Afghanistan, however, could overturn all that. If Merkel fails to win reelection, it would not be surprising to see Germany pull out of Afghanistan. Couple that with the Democratic Party of Japan's vow to seek more independence from America and Obama could be facing a radically different international arena, in which America is deprived of the support of two traditionally friendly allies.

Such a turn of events would, in fact, add to the mounting unease in America itself over our entanglement in Afghanistan. It seems hard to argue that the war is going well, which is why traditional conservatives such as George F. Will are arguing that it's time to retrench. Battle terrorists from the air and sea, but not on the ground seems to be the thinking.

At the same time, the rumblings of discontent from the Democratic Party are becoming more prominent-Senators Jack Reed, Carl Levin and Russ Feingold have come out against sending any further troops. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says, 

The solution is neither to pull out of Afghanistan nor to double down. Rather, we need to continue our presence with a lighter military footprint, limited to training the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban.

Obama's last supporters may be the neocons-William Kristol and Robert Kagan are releasing a letter exhorting a renewed commitment to the battle in Afghanistan.

 Who's got it right? The Will/Kristof approach sounds a little too good to be true. Pull back, target the bad guys selectively and things will go better. But they might not. The Taliban and al-Qaeda might well regroup. Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman is on to something when he says, as he told the New York Times on September 7, that this was the American approach before September 11, and it failed.

But Europe is clearly searching for an exit strategy. Britain, France and Germany are proposing a United Nations conference on Afghanistan to discuss handing over more power to Kabul. To a Kabul government that has won an illegal election? That's a nicety that won't really concern London, Berlin or Paris. The main focus will be on starting to withdraw the 17,000 troops that are part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force. The question, then, may be not whether Obama will send additional troops, but how long it will be before he follows the lead of America's European allies who are trying to extricate themselves from the Afghanistan morass.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.