German Tornado fighters may soon be flying over Afghanistan.
Indeed, it now looks as though -- if the Tornados do head to Afghanistan -- their mandate will be a limited one. The German parliament on Wednesday is set to discuss the mission, and the draft mandate under consideration specifically states the air force jets should "not be used for 'Close Air Support.'"
In other words, the Tornado jets cannot provide direct support for ground operations -- one of the main advantages the international strike force has in its ongoing and escalating fight against the Taliban. Frequently, US military units deliberately allow the enemy to open fire on them so that artillery positions can be identified from the air and then eliminated; some British units use the same tactic. Military commanders in Afghanistan describe such air support as essential to their mission.
So what would the jets be able to do? In emergency situations -- when NATO troops or soldiers from the US led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) find their lives in danger -- German pilots could help out. Otherwise, military observation would be the name of the game. Images taken from the air would be analyzed on the ground. The Tornados are technically incapable of transmitting the images while in flight.
Experts in Germany's Defense and Foreign Ministries confirm that requests for emergency help can and will not be refused. "There is still a clear distinction between what we can do regularly and what we can only do in clearly defined exceptional situations," a foreign ministry source says. The main task of the pilots is quite clear, he adds: Taking pictures.
Approval from both sides of the aisle
Ironically given the intense debate going on in Germany, it was Berlin itself which came up with the idea of sending the Tornados to Afghanistan. Following intense criticism of the Germans for their hesitancy to fight in the dangerous southern part of Afghanistan, the Tornado offer was made as a good-will gesture. And the NATO mission -- known as the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF -- is primarily interested in the reconnaissance capabilities offered by the jets.
German troops are stationed in the northern part of Afghanistan.
The chairwoman of the Bundestag's Defense Committee, Ulrike Merten of the Social Democrats, is not opposed to data being passed from NATO to OEF forces under specific conditions; after all, OEF forces help protect NATO troops. "Still, the distinction should be clear enough for the two mandates not to blend," Merten said. She also said she is not worried that a deployment of Tornado jets could lead to German troops being drawn into combat situations in southern Afghanistan.
Politicians from the other side of the aisle also endorse the draft. The deputy head of the Defense Committee, Christian Democrat Karl A. Lamers, said passing information on to OEF is legitimate as long as it "contributes to more security" in Afghanistan.
"If the reconnaissance photographs taken by the Tornados allow us to quickly see how enemy forces try to infiltrate and enter the country," he said, "then we're making a contribution to the security of the soldiers, the reconstruction teams and the people in Afghanistan."
Who gets the pictures?
The draft mandate states that the mechanism by which the aerial photographs taken by the Tornados should be passed on to Operation Enduring Freedom should be "restrictive." Germans are particularly concerned about becoming involved in any OEF raids that accidentally harm civilians, as has recently been the case. Still, the paper also points out that that helping the OEF also improves the security of German troops.
Whatever the mandate says, though, it is unclear whether a clear distinction between the two missions can be drawn -- as some in Berlin also acknowledge. Indeed, the exception allowed in the draft mandate is a broad one, and lends itself to liberal interpretation. Information can be passed to OEF, according to the draft, "when this is necessary for the successful carrying out of ISAF missions or the safety of ISAF troops."
Such conditions are not difficult to meet. Furthermore, the ISAF troops have been led by a US general since the weekend. He is not likely to be in favor of a strict distinction between the two missions.
Social Democrat defense policy expert Rainer Arnold thinks the term "restrictive" is "more a political message to military leaders, urging them to carefully consider whether or not civilian victims can be accepted in a given operation."
British and US commanders haven't always pondered this question carefully in the past, Arnold suggests. But he hopes both will develop a point of view closer to the German one -- much as the concept of military and civilian reconstruction supported by Germany was endorsed by Berlin's allies. "You can't just bomb an entire village and just casually accept the civilian victims that result," Arnold says. But at the same time, Arnold is upset that the Afghanistan mission is often skewed in the public debate. "Taliban bombs have killed 10 times more people so far than bombs dropped by the NATO allies."
Preparing for "emergency situations"
Even if "Close Air Support" missions may not be endorsed by the German parliament, Tornado pilots are nonetheless being trained for them said a number of pilots interviewed anonymously by several German TV stations over the weekend. The Bundeswehr leadership's only comment was that troops need to be trained for "emergency situations" too, but that this does not affect the nature of the mission.
The reconnaissance jets and as many as 500 support troops will be stationed in the city of Mazar-i Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. The Tornado mission will set German taxpayers back by 35 million ($45 million) until a new general mandate goes into effect on Oct. 13, 2007.