Tuesday, September 22, 2009
New threats by al-Qaida and fierce criticism of a German-ordered airstrike that killed dozens have pushed Germany's mission in Afghanistan to the forefront of this country's national election campaign.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, like her foreign minister and main rival in Sunday's vote, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has steadfastly backed the deployment even though polls say half the public wants the 4,220 soldiers to come home.
On Monday, Merkel urged calm over the terror threats against Germans if they do not elect candidates who will end the mission, saying "people can be confident that everything is being done for their security."
Despite her reassuring words — and a visible increase in security measures at train stations and airports with police toting automatic weapons — Afghanistan will be the top foreign policy priority for whoever wins the election.
"Afghanistan has slowly grown into a real problem for German politicians," said Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations, noting that some 90 percent of lawmakers support the mission.
"Sooner or later that will lead to a highly problematic situation," he said.
Heading into the election, only the minor Left party campaigned on that issue and both Merkel and Steinmeier were happy to ignore it. That changed Sept. 4 after a German army colonel called in a U.S. airstrike on a pair of hijacked tanker trucks in northern Afghanistan. The bombing appears to have killed dozens of Afghan civilians.
A poll by the Forsa institute, taken Sept. 10-11, shows 55 percent of Germans want their troops brought home. Islamic militants appear bent on changing that.
German voters are far more concerned about the economy than foreign policy. Fully 57 percent of those surveyed in the Forsa poll said parties' positions on Afghanistan played no role whatsoever in deciding their vote; just 3 percent described it as a very important factor. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
A video surfaced Friday featuring an al-Qaida extremist threatening Germans with "a rude awakening after the elections" if they did not push their political parties to pull out the soldiers. The same militant, speaking in German, issued another message two days later, also mentioning Afghanistan.
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