Though Germany has firmly defended the decision of its commander, the deadly operation comes at a particularly delicate moment for Chancellor Merkel.

NATO’s killer air-raid on Afghanistan’s Char Dara district in Kunduz province last week, undertaken at the behest of a German commander, has placed Afghanistan firmly on the German electoral agenda.

The NATO strike, in which a U.S. F-15 fighter jet summoned by German troops bombed fuel trucks hijacked by the Taliban, claimed over 70 lives and has dramatically added to the already heated debate raging across Europe about NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan.

Though Germany has firmly defended the decision of its commander, with Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an address to her country’s Parliament, warning against hasty judgements, it is clear that the deadliest operation involving German forces since World War II comes at a particularly delicate moment for Ms Merkel. Elections are scheduled for September 27 and public opposition to the German presence in Afghanistan is growing by the minute. Polls show about two-thirds of Germans would like the 4,200 German troops in Afghanistan to return home.

The fact that the opposition Socialist SPD party does not hold the high moral ground on this issue, since the dispatch of German troops was decided upon by the former Socialist Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, offers cold comfort to Ms Merkel. On Tuesday, the Chancellor reiterated her commitment “to protecting democracy and reconstruction in Afghanistan” and said Germany, bound by international alliances, would not unilaterally pull out its troops. But she did stress that Germany, France and Britain in a joint letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have issued a call for a conference by the end of the year to map out the future of the international mission in Afghanistan and provide an outlook for troop withdrawal.

Ms Merkel has come under intense criticism for failing to persuade the German public about “the rightness of the German presence in Afghanistan”, said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations. Aware of the damage this incident could do to her re-election chances, she has called for a “quick, comprehensive and transparent” enquiry into the raid.

The German press has been uniformly critical in its assessment of the situation with the leading newsmagazine Der Spiegel saying: “It’s high time the German government mapped out a clear plan for withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. Shocked by last Friday’s deadly air strike, voters in Germany want a new strategy that will lead to a pullout.”

The centre-left daily Suddeutsche Zeitung was even more scathing, accusing the German government of surreptitiously becoming a warring party under U.S. command. “The 500-pound bombs the Americans dropped at Germany’s request have bombed Afghanistan into the German election campaign. Germany muddled its way into a war and thought it could muddle its way back out — without clarity or truth, without a tangible view of the mission and its purpose, without a fundamental debate in Parliament and in the public,” the paper said.

Particularly strong words were in store for the German Defence Minister, Franz Josef Jung, who hours after the strike stoutly denied there were any civilian casualties and when proved wrong said he would not comment. “Franz Josef Jung’s tactic of placating, covering up and concealing is increasing public opposition to the mission. How are people supposed to support the mission if they are constantly told that our boys are mainly just riding around on patrol, building hospitals and inaugurating schools?” wrote the Financial Times Deutschland.

So far the German government has domestically tried to sell the line that its troops are engaged not in war but in reconstruction and humanitarian work. The press has decided to call that bluff. Commentators want the government to stop pretending that Germany’s 4,200 troops in Afghanistan are focused on civil reconstruction, and to admit that they are in a war zone. Above all, they want the German government to come up with a clear, concrete plan that will eventually allow German forces to withdraw.

Berlin’s NATO allies view its public pronouncements on its role in Afghanistan with a mixture of distaste and scorn. While it is true that with 4,200 men on the ground Germany has the third largest contingent in Afghanistan, Berlin has so far been excellent at dishing out opprobrium and strongly worded advice while shying away from engaging in hostilities. At home both Ms Merkel and her Socialist Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been at pains to tell their pacifist fellow citizens that German troops in Afghanistan were there in a purely humanitarian and reconstruction capacity. They have long understood the need to unveil the tough reality but have been putting off telling the truth until after the election. Fate has dealt them both a heavy blow and the Afghan question has literally exploded in their faces.

Ironically, it is not the Taliban that has made Afghanistan an electoral issue in Germany but an order given by their own top commander and whether they like it or not, the debate is underway. Whatever the outcome of the elections, Germany will have to take two major decisions: Whether to send in more troops and civilians to help in reconstruction work and whether or not to join the chorus attempting to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai over his exact game plan in the months ahead — if he remains in office, that is.

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