Germany’s Afghanistan Scandal

By / 12.1.2009

Berlin the city is bracing for its first winter snows, but Berlin the seat of government is in the middle of a storm of a very different type.

On Sept. 4, a German military commander near Kunduz, Afghanistan called in a NATO air strike against two stolen German tanker trucks, allegedly unaware that hundreds of civilians had gathered around them. The resulting attacks left as many as 150 dead, but the Merkel government, then in the thick of its reelection campaign, said the casualties were a tragic but unavoidable mistake, and the issue was largely irrelevant on election day.

Since then, the civilian leadership of the military has shifted — Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung moved to the labor ministry, while Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg took over the defense post. Jung left the spotlight, and zu Guttenberg immediately called the attack “militarily appropriate.” Everything seemed calm, for a few weeks.

But new evidence shows that Jung may have known of at least some civilian casualties only hours after the attacks. Even worse, the leading daily paper in Cologne, the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, reported that the Merkel government had internally determined before the election that the attack was not actually necessary, but had kept its assessment secret.

The new reports have led to Jung’s resignation, on Friday, as well as the sacking of two top defense ministry officials by zu Guttenberg. Merkel’s team now says it is “reassessing” the situation. But it’s unlikely to be enough: The parliamentary opposition, particularly the hard left, has been looking for an anti-war foothold for years, and the unfolding scandal is an excellent chance to step up its attacks on Merkel and zu Guttenberg, whom some see as a potential future chancellor candidate.

It’s important not to blow the scandal out of proportion. The German public response has been muted, in large part because no German soldiers died in the incident. For all its cultural differences, the public’s calculus for tolerating the violence of war is the same as in the U.S.: all death is tragic, but even civilian deaths overseas, at the hands of German troops, are unlikely to change the mood dramatically.

Indeed, one of the more salient aspects of the attacks is the discovery that German overseas aggression, long the bogeyman of German culture, is no longer such a big deal among the public. Germans are unlikely to accept, say, permanent bases or unilateral declarations of war anytime soon, but the Kunduz Affair shows that these days they are much less idiosyncratic in their attitudes toward war than the world has long believed.

Which isn’t to say that the scandal will have no effect. Given the conservatives’ hold on parliament, it is unlikely to disrupt their planned re-approval of the Afghan deployment next month. But it will make it harder to significantly increase troop deployments next year, something zu Guttenberg has hinted he will pursue in the coming months. Which is bad news for the United States and NATO, both of which are clamoring for more contributions from alliance members.