Handicapped in the Hindu Kush: Do Poor Weapons Hinder Germany in Afghanistan?

By Ulrike Demmer

German soldiers in Afghanistan are seeing more action than ever, resulting in more deaths and injuries. The growing body count has sparked debate over soldiers' equipment and doubts as to whether the current limits on engagement are appropriate.

Taliban militants in Helmand province: Should German soldiers have to wait until they are attacked before striking back at insurgents?
DPA

Taliban militants in Helmand province: Should German soldiers have to wait until they are attacked before striking back at insurgents?

The soldier is afraid for his life. He can only see about 15 Taliban in front of his armored vehicle, but judging by the Kalashnikov fire and anti-tank weapons coming from all sides, there must be more. He fires back, but he has no idea whether his bullets are hitting the intended Taliban targets. His comrades in the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have thrown in smoke grenades as an evasive tactic and they have covered the area with a thick cloud. But he knows he must be killing something.

Not too far behind, other German troops are cowering -- but he's oblivious to them. About 400 meters away (1,312 feet) an armored "Fuchs" (Fox) personnel carrier flips into a ditch filled with water during an evasive maneuver. Three of his comrades drown.

"The worst thing is that it didn't have to come to that," he later writes to fellow soldiers back home. The soldiers wanted to circumvent the Taliban but were ordered not to. "We requested permission to drive around them because our reconnaissance had already detected the enemy an hour earlier," he says.

This account comes from a German soldier fighting for his nation's security in the Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan last Tuesday, six kilometers (four miles) southwest of Kunduz to be more exact.

Once thought to be far safer than the southern insurgent strongholds, the situation in northern Afghanistan -- where the Bundeswehr is in command of the security force -- has grown far more dangerous recently. Over the past few months insurgent attacks on International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops have increased. Since the beginning of the year, insurgents in the region perpetrated 31 armed attacks, 15 rocket strikes and 27 incidents involving explosives. "Kunduz is lost," says a sergeant who just returned to Germany because, as he puts it, his "luck ran out." The sergeant was in his "Dingo" armored vehicle when it was struck by explosives several times.

The Taliban is no longer limiting its activities to hit-and-run attacks. Instead, the insurgents have taken to ambushing German soldiers in Kunduz and the surrounding area and engaging them in sustained combat.

However, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) still doesn't want to talk about " a war." According to Jung, the focus is on civil reconstruction and "networked security." The word "war," he says, sets "completely the wrong tone." But since last Tuesday those who disagree with him have become more vocal. Reinhold Robbe, with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the German parliament's military commissioner, says that the situation is "essentially war." And according to former Defense Minister Peter Struck (SPD), the Taliban is "forcing war upon us."

For soldiers who are fighting for their lives in battles that can last several hours, this debate must seem pointless. They are shooting, killing and dying. Describing it as anything other than "war" just doesn't seem right.

"Anyone Who Attacks Us Can Expect a Response"

The German army, or Bundeswehr, has changed its tactics in recent weeks. In the past, a patrol that was ambushed was simply advised to "push forward." Today those soldiers are fighting back. "Anyone who attacks us can expect a response," says Defense Minister Jung.

The Defense Ministry often speaks of ambushes, but the German soldiers also appear to be seeking out areas controlled by the Taliban. In doing so, they are not only deliberately exposing themselves to risk but are, quite literally, making themselves the Taliban's targets. As one soldier reports, before some of the recent skirmishes, the Germans drew attention to themselves by making loud noises. The reason for this is the German military's peculiar mandate for its soldiers in Afghanistan.

The three soldiers who drowned in last week's fighting died in a "Fuchs" armored personnel carrier like this one.
DDP

The three soldiers who drowned in last week's fighting died in a "Fuchs" armored personnel carrier like this one.

Describing last Tuesday's events, soldiers claim that about 170 men in German and Afghan units combed through the Chahar Dara district, a Taliban stronghold southwest of Kunduz, looking for booby traps. When a Luna unmanned drone spotted a group of insurgents, the soldiers took their positions. They requested permission to drive around the enemy, but they received no orders at all over the next hour -- neither to withdraw nor to attack.

One soldier writing to his comrades afterwards would say they felt like rabbits in a trap. Under the rules of engagement in its current mandate dictated by parliament, the German soldiers are only permitted to attack when their lives are in danger. So did this mean that they had to wait for the Taliban to attack? Or should they have drawn attention to themselves so that the enemy made the first move and the battle could begin?

Is Political Expediency Making German Soldiers Targets?

Do German soldiers have to make themselves targets simply because of their commanding officers' reservations about legal definitions? According to the rules of engagement, which every Bundeswehr soldier deployed abroad keeps with him in the form of a printed pocket card, the German ISAF forces have the right to defend themselves against attack anywhere and at all times, as well as to repel attacks and to provide emergency assistance. But they are not permitted to hunt down and kill terrorists.

International law offers a broader mandate. In its resolutions, the United Nations Security Council has empowered the ISAF troops to take all measures necessary to fulfill their mandate. The Germans, however, have subjected themselves to more stringent rules.

The Soldier's Fortune website (Soldatenglück.de) offers a graphic depiction of how American forces interpret this mandate. A video on the site shows the crew of an AH-64 Apache helicopter hunting down and killing a group of 14 armed Taliban fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan -- without having been attacked first. For American and British troops, killing and dying are accepted elements of the mission in Afghanistan.

The Bundeswehr has Apache-like combat helicopters in its arsenal, but they are currently in the hangar and will remain there for the immediate future.
DPA

The Bundeswehr has Apache-like combat helicopters in its arsenal, but they are currently in the hangar and will remain there for the immediate future.

But the German politicians responsible for sending soldiers to Afghanistan prefer to portray their mission as one that involves policing and developmental aid; they know that anything else would be unpopular with the general public. And with the exception of the far-left Left Party, all of the parties in the German parliament have agreed to keep Afghanistan out of the campaigns for the September parliamentary elections. And while there are many doubts about the mission, majority support for a withdrawal does not exist.

Additionally, a debate has erupted among supporters of the mission over the outfitting of the Bundeswehr troops. It is irresponsible "to send the soldiers on their dangerous missions without giving them the protection that superior Western technology can provide," says Rainer Arnold, the defense policy spokesman for the SPD's parliamentary group. Arnold wants to see combat helicopters sent to Afghanistan. Bernd Siebert, his counterpart with the CDU, advocates giving German soldiers the Panzerhaubitze, a German self-propelled howitzer, also known as the PzH 2000. And Elke Hoff, a defense policy expert with the business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) is publicly voicing her support for the Eurofighter jet, arguing that the equipment and material supplied must be adapted to suit the situation.

The Right Weapons Are Much Too Powerful.

The Bundeswehr does in fact have a combat helicopter at its disposal -- the "Tiger" -- which, with its three-hour combat potential and a range of 725 kilometers, is comparable to the American "Apache" helicopter. But the Tiger will remain in the hangar for the next few months. Firstly because the few helicopters stationed at the Fritzlar military airbase in central Germany are not yet ready for use, due to technical problems. And secondly because there are not enough pilots fully trained in the use of these machines in battle.

The military leadership has rejected calls for the PzH 2000 and for additional "Marder" armored personnel carriers. Four "Marder" APCs are already in Mazar-e-Sharif, they have recently undergone significant maintenance work and are currently on the way to Kunduz. As for the PzH 2000, German Chief of Army Staff Hans-Otto Budde believes that heavy artillery like this would constitute an unnecessary "show of muscle in the current situation."

In fact, the requested weapons systems would increase the risk of collateral damage. They are so powerful that it would be next to impossible to avoid civilian casualties. And many innocent Afghans have already lost their lives in American "rapid response" air strikes deployed in connection with sudden skirmishes. The ultimate argument is that providing better protection for German soldiers could have the opposite of the intended effect as it leads to a loss of support among the local population. This is one of the reasons that Americans are beefing up their ground forces, the argument being that the additional "boots on the ground" will eliminate the need for air strikes.

US General Stanley McChrystal, the new ISAF commander, has ordered his soldiers to pursue a new strategy. Whenever you do anything that harms people, he recently told troops, you are probably forfeiting the sympathy of the local population. McChrystal has said that foreign troops would be better off not requesting aerial bombardment and should withdraw when there is a threat of collateral damage.

This is a strategy that has served the Germans well until now. "If we lose the support of the Afghan people," says Winfried Nachtwei, the German Green Party's parliamentary expert on defense issues, "we won't have to spend much time thinking about an exit strategy. We'll be implementing it instead."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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