Changing the Rules in Afghanistan German Troops Beef Up Fight against Taliban

Behind closed doors, the German government is slowly but surely changing the rules for combat on Afghanistan, allowing its forces to take a more offensive approach. At the same time, German popular support for the "war" that no one wants to call a war continues to decline.

By SPIEGEL Staff


Every night, the soldiers leave the run-down police station in Chahar Darreh and head out in search of the enemy, passing through silent mountain villages in countryside crisis-crossed by two wide rivers and a multitude of smaller waterways.

The area they patrol is home primarily to ethnic Pashtuns, it is about 15 kilometers (9 miles) long and 5 kilometers (3 miles) wide. The police station in Chahar Dara, where German Special Forces have established a small base, is a few kilometers from the German military, or Bundeswehr, field camp in Kunduz.

The road there -- affectionately known as "Road Little Pluto" in military jargon -- crosses the high, sandy Western plateau and supply trips to, and from, the base are at least as dangerous as the nightly patrols. The Bundeswehr's armor-plated vehicles -- with names like Dingo, Mungo and Fuchs (Fox) -- struggle slowly down the dirt roads, in full view of the enemy for whom surrounding farms, cornfields and tall bushes are simply better camouflage.

The Americans launched a new offensive in the southern province of Helmand last week but German troops see most of their action in Chahar Dara in the north. They regularly encounter homemade roadside bombs and face firefights -- and they are both killing and being killed.

In Chahar Dara a dusty area of about 75 square kilometers (27 square miles), Germany is waging a war -- even though it isn't supposed to be called a war. Memorial services were held in Bad Salzungen, a city in central Germany, last week for three soldiers killed nine days earlier in an accident, during a skirmish in Chahar Dara. And early this week Chancellor Angela Merkel presented four soldiers with the Ehrenkreuz, the Bundeswehr's cross of honor, in recognition of their courageous efforts to assist fellow soldiers after a suicide bombing in Chahar Dara. Two of their comrades died.

In the past, such awards were referred to as Orden, or medals, but in modern Germany they resist that description. Mainly this is because of historical associations with the role of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of the Third Reich, during World War II and the Holocaust. And avoiding any mention of Germany's military history shapes the nation's current mission in Afghanistan, just as it shapes debate about the mission. War cannot be referred to as war -- and it must be conducted in as un-warlike a fashion as possible.

The German public is increasingly skeptical about the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of Germans are currently in favor of a rapid withdrawal. In reality, the opposite is taking place. The Bundeswehr is becoming more entrenched in this war and it is also gradually going on the offensive.

German Combat Missions: Like a Turtle With Teeth

According to information SPIEGEL has obtained, the rules of engagement have been -- and are still being -- revised. The impression is that the German deployment is a peacekeeping operation engaged in what is referred to as a "stabilization mission." But in fact recent events suggest that the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan is, surreptitiously, becoming more aggressive.

This shift is another move towards the normalization of Germany's feelings about itself as a nation. It's something that German governments have been working toward for 60 years. And in many respects, the country is already there -- so now is the time for Germany to consider military matters. This is one of the most difficult areas for Germans to contemplate -- after all, there was a time when German soldiers were best known for their terrible assault on most of the rest of the world.

The steps being taken now are small. Germany is approaching combat missions like a turtle: slowly and well-armored. Nevertheless, it is one that is gradually becoming a snapping turtle.

On April 8, nobody even noticed when a few words -- important words --were deleted from a NATO document. One of the deleted phrases was: "The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is taking place or is imminent."

On March 3, 2006, the Germans had this sentence added to the NATO operations plan for Afghanistan as a "national clarification" or caveat. Bundeswehr soldiers were only to shoot in self defense. And there were further explanations in bylaws 421 to 424 as well as in rule 429 A and B. For instance, Germans were not to refer to their actions using the word "attack." Instead they would talk about the "use of appropriate force."

Changing the Rules So Quietly It's Almost Secretive

None of this applies anymore. Major General Erhard Bühler, director of Joint Commitments Staff, had spent a long time working to have these phrases removed. In April, Bühler finally managed to secure Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung's approval.

This was done so quietly as to appear almost secretive. Not even the German parliament's defense committee was informed of this small but significant change. When Werner Hoyer, a politician with the business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), heard of the changes last Friday, his first reaction was to ask why parliament had not been made aware of the changes -- especially before voting on a resolution to approve the deployment of German military personnel in the NATO AWACS mission in Afghanistan.

Niels Annen, a member of parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), voiced his irritation over the Bundeswehr's secretive handling of the case. "The way this was done raises questions," Annen said -- even though, he added, he had no fundamental objections to the adjustments. Fellow member of parliament Eckart von Klaeden, with the conservative Christian Democrats, said that, generally, he welcomed the change even though he had only just heard about it. It makes sense to "make the rules of engagement conform to military requirements and to the mission's goals," he said.

This policy is now outlined on the pocket-sized reference card of combat guidelines that German soldiers carry with them. The Bundeswehr calls it "a structural adjustment;" the Defense Ministry's legal department is considering swapping Chapters II and III on the pocket card around. This means that the chapter, "Use of Military Force to Complete a Mission" would be placed ahead of the chapter, "Use of Military Force in Self-Defense" -- which, one assumes, would mean that the former becomes more important. Additionally, to avoid future misunderstandings, examples will be included to illustrate to soldiers when they are permitted to use lethal force.

Another issue being discussed is whether the guideline in Section II, No. 4 should be amended. The current wording states that defensive measures can be taken if an attack is "imminent." The words could be changed to read that defensive measures can be taken "if there is evidence of an approaching attack."

When the Bundeswehr got into a gun battle in Chahar Dara two weeks ago, some soldiers thought that they had to wait until they were shot at before they could fight back. Essentially they turned themselves into targets -- and this is exactly the kind of confusion the German military wants to eliminate.

Winfried Nachtwei, the German Green Party's parliamentary expert on defense, said it was reasonable to amend the pocket card if it meant that German soldiers can better defend themselves. "But," he argued, "we must be careful not to be drawn into a whirlpool of escalation. It would be counterproductive to end up looking like we are hunting the Taliban, nor would that be compatible with our mandate. Anyone who thinks you can simply clean up out there is out of touch with reality. You can actually get further over three cups of tea in Afghanistan."

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