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Are we losing the public opinion war?

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by Luca Bonsignore

It is not the first time, and it will certainly not be the last, that a war is being fought on two different theatres: One abroad, where aircraft, tanks and soldiers fight against their nation’s declared enemies; and another at home, where politicians fight to win the public’s support for the war - or to undermine it, according to their ideas, goals and positions in the political circus.

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In Germany this has been very much the case ever since the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict and, most particularly, the country’s participation in it. Since the very first days of the deployment of German troops in the ISAF mission, a gnawing divergence has been steadily growing between the troops’ real military tasks as part of the NATO-led operation, and the fantasies, ideologies and half-truths being put forward by the German government in an effort at controlling public opinion at home. Now, the air strike that took place on early Friday in northern Afghanistan has raised the risk of throwing this situation completely out of balance.

On early Friday, two fuel-laden tanker trucks hijacked by the Taliban the previous day were stuck in a riverbank when a German commander ordered one 500-pound satellite-guided bomb to be dropped on each truck. The vehicles exploded in a fireball that lit up the night sky for miles, incinerating or severely harming at least 90 people standing nearby. According to different Afghan sources, the Taliban had either forced Afghan villagers to get the trucks moving again, or allowed them to begin siphoning fuel from the tankers. Therefore a larger number of people were surrounding the trucks when the bombs hit than estimated by the intelligence officers. It is not yet clear how many of the victims were civilians, however, comments about the air strike are being heard throughout the world.
To read more on the details and the development of the incident, we can recommend a very comprehensive report of the Washington Post published on Saturday (see:

Heavy Tremors in Berlin

Three weeks before federal elections, the air strike also caused a veritable earthquake many hundreds of kilometres away on the political stage in Berlin. Here, German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung (CDU) immediately warned against “hasty judgments” and tried to explain his view of the situation. In the Sunday edition of the Bild daily newspaper he said “the air strike was absolutely necessary.” According to the Minister, the local German commander had clear information that the Taliban had seized both fuel trucks about six kilometres from the German base in order to launch an attack either against Afghan checkpoints or even against German soldiers in Kunduz. Therefore, according to Jung, the commander correctly requested an air strike, which was then carried out by two US F-15E Strike Eagles. "If that [the alleged Taliban attack] had succeeded, it would have had horrible consequences for our soldiers. That's why, in my view, the commander made the right decision,” Jung explained.

The date of the strike couldn't be worse for the German government trying to avoid bringing the Afghanistan question into the electoral debate. However, large parts of the population in Germany, since the beginning, have been opposed to the presence of German soldiers in Afghanistan as well as to the recent expansion of their mandate. An increasing level of violence in Northern Afghanistan has further increased doubts. Opinion polls now show two-thirds of Germans are more than sceptical of the mission or clearly oppose it.

The two main candidates for the election, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SDP), both share the same basic perceptions about Afghanistan and both recently said that the German commitment to ISAF would be maintained. However, Oskar Lafontaine, co-leader of the opposition Left Party, has already used this incident to underline his request for a complete and immediate withdrawal of all German troops from Afghanistan, displaying his party as the “peace party” wherever and to whomever he can.

To avoid public protest against the mission, the German Defence Ministry never used the term “war” or similar offensive vocabulary, and rather insisted – against all evidence – that ISAF is carrying out a peacekeeping and reconstruction mission. For the same reason, the MoD has resisted pressure by the US and UK and has kept German soldiers largely out of harm’s way in the relatively less dangerous northern parts of the country. However, claims of Friday’s air strike as the “most deadly operation involving German forces since World War Two” has definitely caused his plan to fail.

EU nations slam air strike

In an unexpectedly early reaction, many EU politicians have loudly slammed the German role in the air strike. “This was a big mistake,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said, adding that the responsible individual ought to be brought to trial. “Even if there was only one civilian there, this operation should not have taken place,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.

These fierce critics were heard uncommonly early, just hours after the air strike had been ordered. The major problem behind the German involvement in the air strike is that the decision to bomb the tankers was based largely on a single human intelligence source as well as the insufficiently precise air reconnaissance footage. NATO has promised an enquiry into the incident. Defending the commander, Jung said that most of the criticism has been formulated without knowing what the situation was and without available background information.
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