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Interview: Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in the Bild am Sonntag on German engagement in Afghanistan

Mr Westerwelle, in the summer of 2007, when you were still the leader of the opposition, you gave an interview to this newspaper in which you answered the question of whether you could ship soldiers off to their deaths if you were Minister by saying: “If I had to do it for Germany – if I had to, yes I would.That is why being in power means sleepless nights and nightmares.”How well are you sleeping these days as Deputy Chancellor?

Especially before a conference like the one taking place this week on Afghanistan, you take a very close look at whether what you agree to there and intend to implement thereafter agrees with your conscience.

At the London Conference, Germany is expected to agree to send more soldiers.What do you plan to pledge there?

In Afghanistan we will do more in the areas of civilian reconstruction as well as teaching and the training of police officers and soldiers because we want to develop an exit strategy over the next four years. We want to launch and resolutely continue the process of gradually handing over responsibility.

If possible, will you try to avoid sending additional German troops to Afghanistan?

I have never said that we absolutely will not send additional soldiers to train Afghan troops, for instance, but I won’t hand out blank cheques. Things have to happen in a certain order. First we have to agree on the goals: How do we prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven and launching point for global terrorism? How can we get closer to achieving self sustaining security in Afghanistan? Which resources do we need for reconstruction, how will we protect the reconstruction efforts and the development workers? What else do we have to do to train the security forces? I would like for us to actually take advantage of the possibilities for intelligently restructuring the existing Bundeswehr contingent to train Afghan security forces.

Currently it seems like the extremists are gaining strength ...

That is why in London we will also discuss a completely new approach to reintegrating insurgents into society. There are many Taliban sympathizers who have gone down the wrong path not because they have fanatic convictions, but rather for economic reasons. We want to offer economic and social prospects to these people and their families. We will also allocate additional funds for this.

What is your response to calls for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan?

An overhasty withdrawal would be irresponsible. Due to concerns about our own security and because we cannot just leave the people in Afghanistan, who are working today to build a better future for their country, at the hands of the Taliban henchmen.

Bishop Kässmann must also know this …

(Editor’s note: Bishop Kässmann, Chairwoman of the Evangelical Church in Germany, has recently expressed a critical view of the German military mission in Afghanistan.)

Anyone who says nothing is going well in Afghanistan is forgetting that today things are much better than they were under Taliban rule. As a Christian, I personally could not live with the fact that young people were being hanged and women were being stoned again in Afghanistan just because they resisted Taliban oppression. We cannot be indifferent and just leave the country and its people to that fate.

The Chairwoman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) is calling for a focus on non military measures ...

I am a peace-loving person, but I am not a pacifist. Of course civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan has to be a major priority. However, Germany is a defensive democracy – it will take action at home and abroad to protect the principles it believes in, and rightly so. We will also defend ourselves against extremists who are out to kill us simply because we live in a liberal and enlightened society. That is why we have to also use military force in Afghanistan to protect the reconstruction efforts. The attacks in London and Madrid and the attempted attacks by the Sauerland Group in Germany demonstrate that this is also in the interest of our security here in Europe.

In the run-up to the conference, General Stanley McChrystal, the top ISAF commander, has called for German soldiers to be less risk averse. In future, will the Bundeswehr have to patrol on foot more often and come into contact with the population instead of driving around in armoured vehicles?

The men and women of the German Federal Armed Forces are courageous. Their service is an example of great self sacrifice. Regarding the issue of how often our soldiers go out on patrol and come into contact with the population, it’s not just about what is desired, but rather about what is possible. In the end, it’s our soldiers’ health and lives on the line.

Is it an American General’s place to express such criticism?

I last heard General McChrystal speak in Brussels and did not hear any accusations directed against the Bundeswehr. I wouldn’t tolerate it. The Federal Government is accountable first and foremost to our constitution and to the citizens of Germany. Overall, I am grateful for the good cooperation among the allies. That goes especially for my American counterpart Hillary Clinton.

Will 2010 be the decisive year for the success or failure of the Afghanistan mission?

At this point no politician can promise that we will have won and wrapped everything up by 31 December 2013. Those in the opposition who make these kind of promises are concerned with votes in the next election and opinion polls. In taking that view, you’re just inviting the terrorists to stick it out two or three more years until we’re gone and they can once again continue their murderous practices. In London we want to agree that we will begin the process of handing over responsibility to the Afghans in 2010 and 2011. It’s about developing an exit strategy. Declaring a deadline too hastily will only strengthen the wrong side.

The Chancellor is making an effort to reach consensus with the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) on a new Afghanistan mandate.Do you support this?

Yes, without any ifs or buts. I am also working to win over a broad majority in the Bundestag for our Afghanistan policy. Last week, I spoke twice to larger groups of representatives from all the parliamentary groups. But I will not make myself dependent on the opposition and certain party political manoeuvres. I cannot neglect things that are of fundamental significance to the security of our country just because there’s an election coming up in North Rhine Westphalia. This mission was started by an SPD-Greens government and continued by the Grand Coalition. When it was in the opposition, the FDP (Free Democratic Party) didn’t shirk its responsibility. I call on those who launched the mission while they were in power not to shy away from their responsibility while they are in the opposition.

The SPD is against sending additional combat forces.How willing are you to compromise with the opposition?

There is agreement on the fact that we can use our resources to do more in the area of training. We will take this concept to London. The government will present it to the Bundestag and discuss it this week. And if in London consensus can also be reached on civilian development and, not least, on Afghan self commitment, we will swiftly implement our offer to do more.

Now, right in the middle of this decisive phase in the Afghanistan conflict, the committee of inquiry on Kunduz is starting its work.The opposition wants the committee to focus on Defence Minister zu Guttenberg – are their efforts justified?

First of all, parliament has the right to investigate and it is the government’s duty and desire to cooperate. We also have an interest in a thorough clarification.

Do you believe the Defence Minister that he was not sufficiently informed by the military leadership and thus initially made the wrong assessment about the bombing?

I have faith in the Federal Defence Minister and in his ministry’s work. But I am in no position to assess a military situation. If there are still unanswered questions, it is up to the committee and the judiciary to clarify them.

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