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The World from Berlin: Afghanistan Offensive 'Dispels German Illusions'

In a step that marks a major psychological milestone in postwar Germany, Bundeswehr soldiers are now on the offensive in Afghanistan. Some German commentators are angry; others saw it coming. But they all agree that Germany can not preserve its "special status" within NATO forever.

The days of German troops only conducting defensive operations are quickly becoming a thing of the past. In a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung announced that 300 German soldiers were backing 1,200 Afghan army troops in a major offensive against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.

In a postwar first, German soldiers are involved in an offensive against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
REUTERS

In a postwar first, German soldiers are involved in an offensive against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.

But what was important about the announcement was not just the fact that the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, was participating but also that it was putting some serious offensive firepower behind its actions. Since coming to Afghanistan in 2002 as part of the NATO-led ISAF peacekeeping force, around 3,700 German soldiers have been in charge of the more peaceful northern part of the country, where they were mostly involved in civil reconstruction and training efforts.

But since late last year, the Germans have had to face increased attacks from a resurgent Taliban. In the run-up to the country's Aug. 20 presidential election, NATO has decided to take the fight to the Taliban. At the beginning of July, US marines launched a surprise offensive in southern Afghanistan. And, as of Sunday, the Germans -- alongside the Afghan soldiers they trained -- are on the offensive in the north.

In Wednesday's press conference, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Germany's highest-ranking officer, stressed the precedent-setting importance of the actions, describing it as "probably the biggest" deployment by German forces in Afghanistan. And he underlined how the soldiers are now using heavy weapons, such as mortars and Marder armored infantry vehicles, in a fight that involves "house-by-house searches and looking for the enemy." SPIEGEL ONLINE has also reported that German fighter jets are firing missiles at suspected insurgents for the first time.

For Germans, having their military on the offensive for the first time since World War II involves passing over a major psychological threshold. And it takes place in the context of a war that has grown more unpopular over the years, after having initially received widespread support. It's also a war that Jung -- to the consternation of many -- has refused to call a war.

In Thursday's newspapers, German commentators have mixed reactions to the news. Some are angry, while others seem almost fatalistic. But they all agree that a psychological threshold has been crossed and that Germany's "special status" in NATO is over.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Why should the Bundeswehr stay in Afghanistan any longer? The answer coming from the German Defense Ministry and proponents of trans-Atlantic relations is that NATO troops must remain there until there is, in the words of German politician Eckart von Klaeden, 'self-supporting stability.' That's a bit of a problem given the fact that the condition this phrase is meant to describe has never really existed in Afghanistan. And it doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon, either."

"In 2008, a rise in the number of attacks destroyed the relative calm. At first, it was isolated exchanges of fire, but then it became real engagements. And now infantrymen and riflemen are being sent out in armored personnel carriers, equipped with grenade launchers. This is an escalation of violence. The Bundeswehr bears no responsibility for it, but it still has to participate -- for the simple fact that it is there and being shot at. The less-than-eloquent defense minister continues to call this a 'stabilization deployment.' He would also presumably call a plane crash a 'precipitous loss in altitude.'"

"Of course, a sudden pullout would only throw Afghanistan into deeper chaos. But a process of clear steps and a significant reduction in troops according to a politically planned course of action could lead many Afghans to feel that they no longer live in an occupied country…."

"An exit strategy is required -- including for the Bundeswehr. A few years back, Germans might not have opposed the deployment, but a majority of them do today. This stance has nothing to do with things having not being sufficiently explained to them. On the contrary, some of the attempts at explaining things have made them very angry. So-called experts say that the Bundeswehr forces in northern Afghanistan need to show their NATO allies that they're willing to fight. What a load of nonsense: waging war just to show that you can."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"In the beginning, the German government in power at the time was very adamant about having a strict separation between ISAF's support and security tasks…. In particular, it opposed having a combined command structure for them, though Germany finally agreed with NATO -- for practical reasons -- to let this happen."

"At the time, it was already clear that Germany's ISAF contingent would sooner or later be drawn into the fighting. Since then, you couldn't help but notice that developments were also going to make offensive military actions unavoidable. But with these actions, Germans have to give up the legal fiction of 'self-defense' (used to justify Germany's deployment in Afghanistan), which only puts the soldiers in a more dangerous legal standing and increases the risks they face."

"The operation will eventually turn into a full-on military conflict as part of a larger civil war that goes beyond international boundaries and involves foreign participants -- as has happened in all previous wars of this type. German politicians still need to overcome their inhibitions about this. If not, they will put the success and international reputation of Germany's mission at risk, and they will lose their credibility among the domestic population vis-à-vis the troops deployed there."

The Handelsblatt financial daily writes:

"Step by step, the Bundeswehr is stripping away the last vestiges of its special position. … The mission's transformation is neither scandalous nor a violation of the mandate. What it's really doing is dispelling the well-nurtured illusion among the German populace that the Bundeswehr can behave differently than its partners over the long haul."

"But now the difference in behavior between the German and the other NATO armies is melting away. The Bundeswehr is losing its special status within the alliance. At the same time, though, it is not allowing itself to be transformed into a fighting machine that shoots without thinking first."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"At his press conference on Wednesday, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung dwelled on the nice parts of his job, such as giving out orders and visiting the barracks. But he wasn't too thrilled about talking about activities in northern Afghanistan. Instead, he continues to repeatedly ask the media to finally -- just for once -- let the public know about the ongoing reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan."

"Of course, you could write this all off as simple war propaganda. But the fact is that the media has always been mentioning those facts. Jung, on the other hand, just doesn't seem capable of understanding that one of the reasons the media don't want to list all the new girls' schools, bridges and clinics in Afghanistan is because he has obstinately refused to put a number on all the military combat vehicles that are being used in the current offensive. The only thing that opposition politicians can do is express their concern about the fact that the situation in the north is now escalating.

"Jung has complained often enough in the name of the solders that the public doesn't take their situation seriously. … But a couple of facts, for example, would be more helpful."

-- Josh Ward, 1:00 p.m. CEST

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