Gates Wants More from Berlin US Demands More German Troops at Taliban Front

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has sent a letter to his German counterpart demanding more German engagement in Afghanistan. Berlin has long resisted such demands, but the pressure to fight is mounting.

By and Alexander Szandar

The German minister of defense is battling on a number of fronts these days. Prior to the state vote in Hesse last week, Franz Josef Jung was doing his best to support his friend Roland Koch (both Christian Democrats) as he campaigned for re-election. But the week after next, his opponent will be a bit larger: Germany's allies in NATO.

A US military convoy in the Zormat district in eastern Pakistan. The US would like to see more German assistance when it comes to battling the Taliban.

A US military convoy in the Zormat district in eastern Pakistan. The US would like to see more German assistance when it comes to battling the Taliban.

When the NATO defense ministers meet in Vilnius, Lithuania next Thursday, Afghanistan promises to be number one on the agenda. Specifically, the demands made by the US and Canada that Germany send combat soldiers to the southern part of the country.

Jung already has a good idea of what awaits him in the Lithuanian capital. Earlier this week, he received a confidential letter from the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In the eight page missive, Gates made US expectations clear when it comes to NATO's strategy in Afghanistan.

And they're quite a bit different from Jung's position. Last year, the German defense minister presented a paper on "integrated security" and civilian-military reconstruction. Gates, on the other hand, places the emphasis on combat -- for him, counterinsurgency, the armed fight against the Islamist insurgency, has priority.

This focus, Gates writes in his letter, explains why Washington is now sending 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan -- troops which will join the 26,000 soldiers already stationed in Afghanistan. The Marines, though, will stay for seven months at the most, after which other NATO allies are expected to take up the slack. Where Gates is pointing the finger, though, is clear: at the Germans.

'Targeted talks with individual nations'

Early in the week, the Canadians also ramped up the pressure on Berlin. After losing 78 soldiers in Afghanistan, Ottawa issued a clear threat to its allies at NATO headquarters in Brussels: Either the Europeans send 1,000 combat troops, together with helicopters, to Kandahar, or Canada will completely withdraw its roughly 2,500 soldiers from Afghanistan next year.

The Canadians also announced that they plan to hold "targeted talks with individual nations" in Vilnius. This effort is also directed mainly at Germany.

Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, currently has about 3,340 of its total of 250,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Although the Bundeswehr's Afghanistan campaign is already deeply controversial in Germany, the United States and Canada feel that the Germans aren't contributing enough to the NATO effort.

Officials at the German defense ministry have called the Gates letter an "outrage." The Americans, they say, are fully aware of the special circumstances -- conditions imposed by the German parliament -- under which German forces currently operate in Afghanistan.

So far the German government has managed to fend off all demands to send troops to the war-torn south. This time Jung hopes to defuse the allies' objections by citing Germany's strengthened commitment in northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban's advance in Afghanistan.

The Taliban's advance in Afghanistan.

Direct Combat Mandate

Jung plans to tell NATO allies that Germany is willing to provide a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to replace an outgoing group of 250 Norwegian soldiers. NATO headquarters requested the commitment in a letter on Monday.

The role of the Norwegian troops has been to augment patrols, protect aid convoys and rush to the aid of fellow soldiers in distress. But their mandate also includes direct combat -- and last autumn, the Norwegian QRF fought alongside Afghan troops against the Taliban. At least 14 enemy fighters were killed in the campaign.

To replace the Norwegian contingent, Jung plans to send about 250 paratroopers and armored infantrymen, as well as armored personnel carriers and mortars to Afghanistan this summer. During a visit to Afghanistan this week, Jung promised that the new German forces would be "well-trained and well-equipped."

But equipment will not be the Germans' biggest problem in the upcoming mission. From the standpoint of NATO military leaders, the German QRF unit cannot be used in the kind of offensive operation against insurgents that the Norwegians waged against the Taliban. The German government has submitted a confidential "proviso" to NATO that imposes restrictive conditions on NATO commanders when using German troops.

Shoot Only in Self Defense

Under the conditions, German soldiers are "barred from the use of deadly force unless an attack is underway or is imminent." In other words, the German troops are only allowed to shoot in self-defense. Strictly speaking, the Germans would have to leave Taliban units untouched if they were merely forming but had not opened fire.

This sort of restriction defies both the demands of US Defense Secretary Gates and NATO practice. It has long been standard for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to actively track down and kill Taliban leaders. Bombing campaigns are also conducted against Taliban units, even when they are not specifically attacking ISAF troops.

In Vilnius, allies and NATO military leaders are expected to urge Jung to abandon the current rules of engagement for German soldiers, thereby forcing him to react to the dramatic situation in Afghanistan. The ISAF stabilization mission, which initially was rarely involved in combat operations, has turned into a combat effort in many parts of the country, and allies will likely demand that Germany, as a NATO partner, do its part and fight alongside its allies -- without conditions.

A look at the Bundeswehr's Web site reveals the extent to which Jung's department has ignored reality. According to the site, fighting the Taliban is the "responsibility of the (US-led) Operation Enduring Freedom," and is thus "strictly separated" from NATO's ISAF mission.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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