New Strategy? German Military and Police Blast Merkel's Afghanistan Plan
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has emphasized the need for a new "strategic direction" in Afghanistan. But many German officials question Berlin's plan to slightly boost the number of troops and police trainers in the war-torn country. "We are training fighters for the Taliban," said one police spokesman.
For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the importance of Thursday's Afghanistan conference in London is clear: "In London, nothing less than a new strategic direction is at stake," she said on Wednesday in an address to the German parliament.
She is not alone in that assessment. In a Thursday contribution for the London Times, NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote, "this conference must and will be different. It will deliver results."
In the last few days, Merkel's government has made clear how it plans to contribute to those results. Berlin intends to send 500 additional troops, with 350 more to be part of a "flexible reserve" for extraordinary situations. Beyond that, Merkel's cabinet has agreed to increase the number of German police trainers in Afghanistan and Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg wants to see German soldiers show a greater presence on the streets of northern Afghanistan, where the Bundeswehr is based.
It is perhaps not surprising that the plan, in a country where public support for the war continues to drop, has not been well received. But the plan's greatest detractors, it has become clear this week, are not just to be found in the parliamentarian opposition. Both Germany's police unions and military association are skeptical of Merkel's new Afghanistan formula.
'Will Achieve Nothing'
Wilfried Stolze, spokesman for the German Federal Armed forces Association, told German radio on Thursday that Guttenberg's intention to have military trainers fight side-by-side with their charges in battles with the Taliban means a much greater danger for the German troops. He said that a strong focus on civilian reconstruction remains vital and that simply sending more soldiers "will achieve nothing."
His critique was echoed by association head Ulrich Kirsch in an interview with the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "Just talking about numbers doesn't help," he said. "Five hundred soldiers more or less -- that is inconsequential for the success of the mission. That cannot be called a new strategy."
There was also pointed critique from Germany's two major police unions of Berlin's pledges to almost double the number of police trainers in Afghanistan. The increase is not huge -- from 119 currently in the country to 200 -- but German police have complained for years of difficulties finding enough officers willing to do a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
And on Wednesday, they went on the offensive. "The plans are utopian," said Konrad Freiberg, head of the German police union GdP. "As German police officers, we don't want to become part of a civil war."
In an interview with the daily Münchner Merkur, he also appeared to call into question the very efficacy of the police training program. "We have to look at things realistically," he said. "Afghanistan needs a police force that can secure areas against Taliban fighters. In some cases, they will have to use heavy weaponry in their fight against the terrorists. We are not talking about ... crime scene investigators who collect finger prints. We are talking about paramilitary units. That is something that we cannot provide -- nor do we want to provide training on the job."
Rainer Wendt, head of the competing police union, called the German Police Union (DPolG), agreed with his colleague's assessment. "The incoming Afghan police officers receive just a brief crash course from us," he told the daily Stuttgarter Nachrichten. "We would already consider it a success if the future security personnel wouldn't bash people on the head, cut off the hands of thieves and stone women."
He also voiced concern that many of those trained by German police might join the Taliban once their instruction is complete. "We are training fighters for the Taliban," Wendt said. "We should be concerned that many of the Afghan police candidates don't even join the force after their training course. Instead, they go directly to the Taliban. They pay twice as much." Afghan police officers earn $100 per month, according to the German Foreign Ministry.
Still, despite the critique, training Afghan security forces is the crux of NATO's strategy in Afghanistan. In all, the Western alliance wants to increase the number of trained soldiers to 134,000 and police to 109,000. A secret draft communiqué circulated prior to Thursday's conference -- and obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE -- expresses hope that Afghan security forces can take the lead on a "majority of operations in insecure areas of Afghanistan within three years."
NATO itself seems to doubt whether the German contribution will make much of a difference. The US has established an immense training facility in northern Afghanistan, not far from the German base, which is capable of training many more security personnel than its German counterpart.
Upon being questioned recently about the German contribution to the training effort, a NATO spokesman in Kabul responded, "let's just maintain a diplomatic silence when it comes to the German contribution to police training in Afghanistan."
cgh -- with wire service