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Merkel aloof as public questions troop presence in Afghanistan

BERLIN - When Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a legislator in Germany's Parliament, travels around his district deep in conservative Bavaria, he usually talks about local issues and then valiantly attempts to raise international topics.

But over the past few months, this young foreign policy analyst for the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, has noticed a change. His constituents want to know what German troops are doing in Afghanistan.

"A lot of the time, they start the discussion," said Guttenberg, 35. "This is something new. They want to know why we are there, what we are doing there, and why we should stay."

It should be Merkel's job to explain why Germany has 3,300 troops based in Afghanistan. But she rarely does. She has not given a single speech devoted to Afghanistan to the Bundestag, or Parliament.

She missed an ideal opportunity earlier this month during a parliamentary debate over renewing the mandates for the German troops based there. But she left the explanation to her not terribly persuasive defense minister, Franz-Josef Jung. And since taking office nearly two years ago, Merkel has traveled neither to Kabul nor to the comparatively peaceful north where most of the German troops are based.

Now, under pressure from the opposition, she has finally announced travel plans. But so far, no date has been set.

What is baffling is that her attitude is out of line with the rest of her foreign policy agenda.

As soon as she took office in late 2005, Merkel moved Germany away from the anti-American rhetoric pursued by her Social Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, reestablishing a more balanced relationship between Berlin and Washington as well as between Berlin and NATO.

She also set out to recalibrate a relationship with Russia that had become so one-sided under Schröder that he once called President Vladimir Putin an "impeccable democrat" even as the press was being muzzled and the rule of law weakened. Merkel has gone out of her way to meet nongovernmental organizations and human rights activists when she visits Moscow. And she has not shrunk from telling Putin directly what she thinks of his policies.

But, forever the pragmatist, Merkel knows she can only go so far. During talks with Putin last week in Wiesbaden, there was a noticeable shift. Little was said about human rights, at least publicly.

Instead, the two leaders matter-of-factly praised the very close economic ties between their countries. With bilateral trade soaring - over the past nine months, compared with the same period a year ago, trade has increased 35 percent - it appears that candor about human rights does not deter business.

Then there is China. Merkel took a lot of criticism from German industry - and from the Foreign Ministry - when she decided to meet the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, in the Chancellery. The Chinese reacted by canceling several meetings, a mild rebuke that Merkel and the German public can live with.

But Afghanistan seems to be Merkel's big blind spot, and indeed a potentially dangerous one.

A poll published Wednesday by the independent Allensbach Institute would rattle any German general instructed to send his soldiers to an international peacekeeping mission. Since 2002, public support for the Afghan mission has fallen to 34 percent from 51 percent. Over the past two years, those who support German involvement in international peacekeeping missions has fallen to 34 percent from 46 percent while those against it increased to 50 percent from 34 percent.

These are dangerous trends for conservative foreign policy advisers like Guttenberg. His big concern is that if Merkel does not take the lead on Afghanistan, it could become an issue in federal elections in 2009.

This is what happened in 2002. Schröder, while probably sincerely believing that the looming US invasion of Iraq was wrong, deliberately made his opposition an election issue to win support. In the end, his campaign had little to do with domestic issues but much to do with German pacifism and anti-Americanism. To be fair, Schröder, who defied his own party and supported the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, defended the Afghan mission very vocally. Perhaps that explains why public support used to be much stronger.

Foreign policy specialists who advise Merkel's Christian Democrats say they cannot understand why the government has not devised a better strategy.

"I really believe the public would buy the necessity of Afghanistan if it was explained," said Karl-Heinz Kamp, director of the security and trans-Atlantic program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, based in Wesseling, Germany, which is affiliated with the Christian Democrats.

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