The debate currently raging in Germany about sending combat troops to Afghanistan is part of the much bigger question of Berlin's capacity to act on matters of international security-and thus of its reliability as an ally.
When it comes to committing offensive forces-that, in the words of Robert Gates, do the "fighting and dying"-Germany is paralyzed and refuses to pull its weight. The Merkel government's apparent readiness to go through the motions to increase troop levels and expand its area of responsibility toward the west is a case in point. The political elites have yet to mount a public relations campaign to explain and justify to a largely pacifistic and partly isolationist electorate what role Germany is playing internationally and what price tag comes with it.
Rewind to 2002: Afghanistan was supposed to be the good war. Germans needed little convincing that there were direct links between Afghanistan and 9/11. And the Bush administration-riding on a wave of international sympathy-put great effort into building a multinational coalition for the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the stabilization of the country.
It's worth recalling that former chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared his "unlimited solidarity" with the United States and even put his job on the line in order to send German troops into Afghanistan. And former defense minister Peter Struck famously made the case that Germany's security was directly linked to the situation in Afghanistan: "Germany is also being defended at the Hindu Kush."
Then came Iraq. This "bad war"-as Germans viewed it-was vehemently opposed by the Social Democratic/Green coalition government. Chancellor Schröder's populist message against the war also helped to turn back the clock on military interventions overall. This was true for the general public, whose lingering anti-American sentiments were exploited. But it was also a lesson for the political elites. Schröder violated the unwritten law of the "Bonn Republic": foreign policy should never become an issue of partisan bickering. This helped him to win the federal election in the fall of 2002 and reminded the rest of the political establishment that going against the electorate on matters of war and peace is akin to political suicide.
Angela Merkel's governing coalition supported the extension of the ISAF mandate to the south of Afghanistan in 2006 in the NATO council. But in fear of the electorate it never made the case that more than armed development-aid personnel were needed to defeat the Taliban. In the public's mind, Afghanistan remained primarily a peacekeeping and development mission. And the deployment of German troops, almost exclusively to the relatively stable northern part of Afghanistan, helped to uphold that illusion.
Today, more than 80 percent of the German public opposes the extension of Germany's mandate for Afghanistan to include combat operations in the south. It is hardly surprising that when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked for more troops in late January, he was quickly rebuffed by his German counterpart, defense minister Franz-Josef Jung, a Christian Democrat, and the federal chancellery. Germany's conservatives have learned from their defeat in the wake of Iraq: military engagement, especially at the request of the Bush administration, is a sure loser. Why, they may ask themselves, give away votes to Social Democrats, Greens and the left party in the federal elections of 2009? The Green Party's hopeful for the post of foreign minister, Jürgen Trittin, is already raising the all-too-familiar specter of "blind allegiance" to the United States to gain political points. (That criticism from the Greens is particularly perfidious, as they supported Germany's involvement in Afghanistan in 2002.)
But demands from the United States for fairer burden sharing in Afghanistan and elsewhere will likely increase in 2009, regardless of whether the new president's name is Clinton, Obama or McCain.
Germany's political elites must do two things to prepare the public for the growing demands of its main ally.
First, level with the people. There must be a long-term effort to convince the electorate that it is in Germany's vital interests to succeed in Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Politicians need to remind voters that Afghanistan was home to the 9/11 plotters that lived and studied in Germany before carrying out those attacks. They must also do a better job at explaining that Germany's security is still guaranteed by NATO and that in order to keep it that way, solidarity with the allies has to work both ways. Not least, Germans must understand that the West's overall credibility is at stake when it comes to successful military interventions and stabilization efforts in their aftermath-be it in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Second, show some leadership. A large portion of the German public will remain skeptical toward picking up a fair share of the burden on matters of international security, no matter how open and truthful a case the government makes. Courageous politicians must brace for strong opposition from the public, as well from their colleagues. In this regard they may-for once-turn to George W. Bush and learn from his gut-based foreign policy.
If a public debate on Germany's national-security interests and the proper role of the German armed forces in it does not commence soon, Berlin will find it increasingly hard to use its soft power, be it within NATO or the United Nations-where it is even seeking a permanent seat at the Security Council.
Jan Techau directs the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Alexander Skiba is program officer at the Oppenheim-Centre.