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12:10 PM

Daily Briefing

Germany's Taliban peace conference

By: Andreas Kluth

How to leave Afghanistan; German terminals for US gas; buzzing Bavarian bees; and Verdi making Berlin hell. Our daily briefing for February 13, 2019.


Coming home?

Has it really been 18 years? Yup, that’s how long the US and its allies, including Germany, have been in Afghanistan. For the US, that makes its mission there the longest war in American history. For Germany, of course, 18 years is, historically, small change; just think of the Thirty Years War. And yet, if you take just German history since World War II, the struggle in Afghanistan has been the deadliest, with 58 Germans dead.

So Donald Trump, tempted by his isolationist instincts, is now apparently toying with the idea of just pulling out and being done with it. One question that raises is where that would leave Afghanistan, given that the Taliban still control about half of it and can’t wait to go medieval again. Another question is where that would leave America’s allies, such as Germany.

The Germans currently have 1,150 soldiers there, who always, it goes without saying, dutifully play second fiddle to the Americans. Now they’re nervous about being stranded there without the superpower, if Trump simply leaves without coordinating his exit with allies, as is his wont.

That’s why a paper drafted by Niels Annen, a big thinker in the foreign ministry, is the talk of this town. Its intended audience is the members of the Bundestag, who have to vote next month on whether to extend Germany’s mission. Germany should only stay as long as there are realistic prospects for a political solution, Annen thinks. And to help find such a solution, Germany should even offer to host a peace conference – and to invite the Taliban.

German terminals for US gas

Every day, they’re laying more pipes in the Baltic, to complete the Nord Stream 2 gas link between Russia and Germany by the end of this year. Russia’s Gazprom is in charge, with five western European firms collaborating as partners and former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, chum of Vladimir Putin, presiding.

Ukraine is horrified: once Nord Stream 2 is completed, Russia could easily turn off the gas that flows through it. Germany’s allies are also freaked out. Poland and the Baltics worry that Russia and Germany could one day do another deal over their heads (as they used to do about once or twice a century in the bad old days). America says it’s crazy for Germany and Europe to become more, not less, dependent on Russian gas. Even France last week wanted the EU to take a harder look at the pipeline – until the Germans leaned on the French to back off.

So Germany’s stubborn support for this pipeline really is hard to explain. It goes against all the multilateral sensitivity Germany usually preaches. Maybe Angela Merkel’s government has now understood that and wants to wriggle back into the western mainstream. That would explain why Peter Altmaier, economics minister and Merkel confidante, sent a dual message to the US yesterday, when he spoke at a German-American industry conference.

One signal was: Mind your business, Donald! Nord Stream 2 is a purely private-sector project, and we won’t mess with it. The other signal was: Look, Donald, we could also build terminals in northern Germany for liquefied natural gas (LNG), the kind you Americans make and export. Altmaier suggested the German government would subsidize the building of at least two such ports. That would be a good idea, but it doesn’t make Nord Stream 2, which runs right alongside Nord Stream 1, any less idiotic.

The buzz in Bavaria

Back when I was covering California and the western US for The Economist, I once developed a keen interest in bees. Bees are the de facto slaves of the Central Valley, you see, pollinating its huge almond farms and other trees. But the bees were dying, because of something called “colony collapse disorder.” There were many theories about what was to blame, but nobody knew for sure. So I kept pitching the story, until my editor, in her characteristically English style, said: “I sense an obsession, and feel it may be good to indulge it.”

So indulge me a bit more now. In Bavaria, there is a petition underway for a ballot initiative called “Save the bees.” Two days ahead of its deadline, the petition already has more than the required signatures. (The threshold is 950,000, or 10 percent of all eligible voters in the state.) So Bavaria will do something for bees, which is great. My question is, as it was in California: What, exactly?

Capital hell

I’m really getting fed up with Verdi, the huge German labor union that keeps organizing strikes where it hurts most. One week they’re shutting down an airport I need to fly to, another week they leave an ATM unstocked, so that I can’t get cash. Today they’re urging some 17,000 teachers and 12,000 other public servants to strike in Berlin, a city where even without strikes you can’t get an appointment to renew your passport. And on Friday, Verdi is planning a strike of Berlin’s subways and buses. They seem to want to shut this place down completely.

So what, you say, just take the car. That’s not a good option either, because of the Yogi-Berra syndrome: Nobody drives anymore in Berlin, the streets are too jammed. According to the new Traffic Score Card produced by the American firm Inrix, Berlin is the German capital of wasting time in jams: an average of 154 hours (6 days) per year. Runners-up are Munich and Hamburg, with about 140 hours each. I supposed it could be worse. Rome, Paris, London, Moscow and some other European capitals each steal more than 200 hours from their drivers. The worst is Bogota, Colombia, at 272. If Verdi has its way, this Friday Berlin could take even Bogota.

Andreas Kluth
Handelsblatt Today Editor-in-Chief

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