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Why a Key NATO Ally Will Likely Sit Out the Surge

By / 12.4.2009

You win some, you lose some: This morning NATO announced it would add 7,000 troops to the alliance’s Afghanistan deployment, a coup for Secretary Clinton and a much-needed boost to President Obama’s surge strategy. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Germany is unlikely to be part of that mix.

Berlin, which has the third-largest deployment in the country, is holding off from committing more troops until a multinational planning conference in January. A few weeks ago, during a swing through Washington, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was still bullish, if vague, about the prospects for additional soldiers.

But what a difference a few weeks can make. Since then, the Kunduz truck-bombing scandal has claimed several heads, including those of the labor minister (formerly the defense minister) and the country’s top uniformed officer. It has also forced an embarrassing about-face from zu Guttenberg, who initially said the attack was justified but now says it was “militarily inappropriate.”

The scandal has sent public support for the war, already tenuous, into a tail spin. According to a new poll by ARD-Deutschlandtrend, 69 percent want Germany to withdraw immediately, a dramatic rise since the last survey, in September. The primary reason, according to 75 percent of respondents, is a loss of trust in the government’s ability to be “full and honest” about Afghanistan. The war is also fueling left-wing violence in Berlin and Hamburg, including a recent firebombing of a federal police station in the capital.

Merkel and zu Guttenberg remain steadfast behind the mission, but their coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are using the scandal to push for reduced combat roles and an accelerated withdrawal timetable. Their leader, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, has said the January conference is not a “donor conference for troops” and declared in “a clear statement from the government” that Berlin will begin moving its soldiers to training and civil-affairs operations, rather than combat.

Even in the news reports surrounding NATO’s additional commitment, analysts expressed hope that Germany would commit more than 1,000 additional troops to Afghanistan come January. Unless the political dynamic inside the country changes dramatically in the next few weeks, those hopes will be dashed.