Stanley McChrystal, the American Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, is calling for an intensification and fundamental strategic shift in the deployment of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, in the country.
In an interview with Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper published on Wednesday, Gen. McChrystal said he would announce his requests at the prestigious Munich Security Conference in February, which draws political leaders and military experts from around the world. McChrystal is also planning to appear before German members of parliament responsible for the Afghanistan mission to promote the new US strategy. Currently, the Bundestag -- which controls the German mandate in Afghanistan -- places the highest priority on the protection of the civilian population.
In the Bild interview, McChrystal said that during his Munich visit he would request more troops and that he would call on all members of the alliance to "provide additional teachers to help run the training bases" where Afghan security forces are trained.
In the run-up to next week's Afghanistan conference in London, he asked NATO member states "to look and see what they can provide so that we can get the right level of force to partner with the Afghans in each area."
At NATO headquarters in Kabul, serious resentment is simmering over Germany's unclear position on stocking up its troops. Officers said that the US government requested a bolstering of troops from Berlin last summer. NATO officials have been waiting for a response for months, and their patience has since evaporated.
German Troops Must Take Greater Risks
The main hurdle in Berlin is that the government has been unable to agree on the right response. In several meetings of top government officials, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has scuppered any suggestions that Berlin might make an offer of extra troops in London. Westerwelle, who heads the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), would prefer to wait and see what kind of offers other NATO members make in the British capital. Westerwelle will be Germany's lone representative at the London conference.
Here in Germany, McChrystal's words could spark a debate about the Bundeswehr's strategy. That's because McChrystal isn't just regurgitating previous US requests for more troops. He is asking for a fundamentally different approach -- namely, that the Germans be prepared to take greater risks in Afghanistan. "Success in the north, particularly in the Kunduz and Baghlan areas, is essential to achieving stability there," he told the paper.
Under the new strategy, McChrystal said that every force on the ground in Afghanistan must be prepared to accept some short-term risks, including Germany. "They might have to change the way they operated in the past," he added. He warned that the "goal of the insurgents is to separate the counterinsurgency forces from the people … by making it dangerous enough that the security forces stay in their bases, stay in their armored vehicles and don't interact with the people." If the insurgents can do that, he said, then they "have accomplished their mission." In McChrystal's view, the Bundeswehr's current overly cautious approach has created a situation in which troops are too distant from the Afghan people.
The tone of McChystal's interview may be very diplomatic, but his message to German politicians and military officials is clear. With his new strategy, McChrystal has defined closer contact with the people and efforts to protect them from the Taliban as the preconditions for success in Afghanistan.
And it is precisely this contact that the Bundeswehr has lost in recent years. In many areas, especially Taliban strongholds, German commanders only dispatch troops in large convoys of armored vehicles. This does more to frighten people than to help build their trust, and McChrystal would like to see that change.
Is the New US Strategy Closer to Germany's?
The general's words may dampen the long-cherished hopes of some German politicians. Up until now, members of all the political parties in Berlin have been persuading themselves that the new US strategy in many respects converges with the German approach to Afghanistan. But McChrystal has now made very clear that the desire to protect the civilian population cannot be fulfilled from the safety of fortress-like military bases.
The recent decision by the US to massively increase the number of American troops in northern Afghanistan has already placed additional pressure on the Germans. The US Army is planning to send the first units to Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif next week. By summer, around 2,500 US soldiers, including a helicopter battalion, are expected to be ready for deployment.
"It will complement rather than replace what the current German forces are doing," McChrystal told the paper. "It's a recognition of how important we think the north is." The primary responsibility for the new units is to help make better progress in building up the Afghan police and army. But they will also fight Taliban. Indeed, US Army Special Forces are already stationed in Kunduz.
Praise for German Defense Minister
But differences are already emerging in the way the Bundeswehr and the US Army train local security forces. The Germans take a less hands-on approach, providing so-called mentoring teams, whereas the Americans provide practical training for small teams in real combat situations.
The US strategy, fraught with risk as it is, has been taboo for the Germans. The Americans' so-called partnering may hold more promise for success, but the Germans consider it to be too dangerous. Last summer, during a visit to Kunduz, McChrystal called on the Germans to adopt the US training methods, saying they were the only way to achieve the targets for the ANA, Afghanistan's army.
Despite his criticism of the German military, McChrystal did have a few friendly words left for Germany's new defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He described the young minister as "very forthcoming." "I think we are going to have a very great working relationship and I am excited about that."
Editor's note: A translation and editing correction has been made in this text. We regret the error.
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