The road to power in Berlin starts in Kabul. This, in essence, appears to be the German left-wing SPD party's new political maxim just three months after they lost the Bundestag elections and were kicked out of Chancellor Merkel's Grand Coalition government. With the SPD in opposition for the first time since 1998, newly-elected party chairman Sigmar Gabriel is beginning to lay the groundwork for a pacifist Afghanistan policy that tries to capitalize on the German public's growing disenchantment with the military mission there. While he has not (yet) called for a full-scale Bundeswehr withdrawal, Gabriel has already made it clear that he's firmly opposed to sending any additional German troops to Afghanistan as part of President Obama's new "surge" strategy. In an interview with Germany's mass tabloid "Bild" published last week, Gabriel accused the "hardliners" from the ruling center-right CDU/CSU-FDP parties of backing a Bundeswehr troop increase that would only "lead to more dead on all sides". "An increase in German combat troops beyond the current limit will not be supported by the SPD", he declared.
In trying to reposition the SPD as the party of peace, Gabriel is following in the footsteps of his political mentor and former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who saved his 2002 re-election bid by confronting Washington over the gathering Iraq war. To its credit, the SPD did support the parliamentary vote on the one-year extension of the Bundeswehr's ISAF mandate earlier this month. However, by strictly opposing any German troop increase beyond the current 4,500 limit, Gabriel is now establishing a major political fault line with Chancellor Merkel. The SPD chairman -- a cunning opportunist with a strong populist streak -- knows full well that his anti-surge position is backed by at least two-thirds of the German population. Merkel, in contrast, has said that she wants to await the outcome of a major international conference on the country's future scheduled for late January in London before making any decisions about a potential Bundeswehr troop increase which analysts say could be as high as 1,500-2,500 soldiers.
Gabriel realizes that in order to help the SPD recover from its biggest crisis ever and to successfully challenge Chancellor Merkel in the future, he needs to energize the party base and regain those former SPD supporters who have been defecting to the pacifist Left Party in droves. A key element in Gabriel's attempt to reclaim the SPD's lost left-of-center political terrain is his new push for a pacifist Afghanistan policy that would not only appeal to many Left Party supporters but could also be used to reach out to those middle-of-the-road voters who see Germany's military engagement at the Hindu Kush as a lost cause. According to media reports, Sigmar Gabriel also plans to reach out to the more than 500,000 rank-and-file SPD members in the coming weeks to ask for their direct input in shaping the party's future stance on the Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan. Given the anti-military and "get-out-of-Afghanistan-quickly" attitudes of many SPD members, one should not expect any surprises from this unprecedented experiment in soliciting policy input from the party base on matters of vital national security. If anything, one must interpret Gabriel's latest innovation in direct democracy as a thinly veiled attempt to gain convenient political cover to orchestrate a volte-face on Afghanistan and to turn the SPD (again) into Germany's peace party of choice.