Ausgabe 38/2009

The End of Innocence in Afghanistan 'The German Air Strike Has Changed Everything'


Part 5: Creeping Belligerence in German Operation

The belligerence creeping into the German operation in the Hindu Kush is evident not only in the firmer approach of the troops. There has been a shift of emphasis in the rules of engagement, too. On April 8, a number of German caveats, which place restrictions on operational capability in Afghanistan, were deleted from a NATO document. One of them was the following: "The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is occurring or is imminent." In March 2006, the Germans had added this sentence as a "national clarification" to the operations plan for Afghanistan -- Bundeswehr soldiers should only shoot in self-defense.

The so-called pocket card with instructions for German soldiers, which had previously emphasized self-defense, was also revised this summer. Now the emphasis is on the measures involving the use of force that are permitted in order to accomplish the mission. All this has brought the Bundeswehr closer to killing. But an escalation such as the air strike was not part of the plan.

The Germans came under strong international pressure because of the attack. An informal meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Stockholm on the weekend of Sept. 5-6 turned into an indictment of the German deployment. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that the bombing was "a big mistake" and it needed to be thoroughly investigated. His British counterpart David Miliband called for an "urgent investigation" and said it was important to "make sure that it doesn't happen again."


The Germans were initially defenseless in response to the criticism. Then German ambassadors in Europe's capitals lodged protests and said they would not accept further criticism until the case had been fully investigated.

But the "German-bashing" continued under the protection of anonymity. One German diplomat spoke of a wave of "schadenfreude against the eternal know-it-alls." "The Germans are by far not as popular in Europe as they believe themselves to be," said Günter Verheugen, the German vice president of the European Commission.

The Germans themselves are also partly responsible for that situation. For years, the Berlin government saw themselves as the top experts on Afghanistan. Few of their partners were safe from their helpful tips.

In particular, Berlin liked to give advice to the Americans. When over 20 civilians died in a US bombing in Helmand province in May 2007, Defense Minister Jung gave the Americans a reprimanding lecture. "This is exactly the wrong way to do things," he told Washington, saying that concrete change was needed.

SPD floor leader Peter Struck, a former defense minister, went the furthest in his criticism and even began to explain the Americans' mistake in terms of psychology. The US national security adviser, James Jones, was "actually a cautious and sensible man," said Struck -- the problem was with the military. "It is the soldiers and officers on the ground who, partly out of fear for their lives, tend to shoot first -- regardless of the consequences," he said.

Now this seems to be exactly what happened to the Germans in Kunduz. Only a few months ago, the Bundeswehr air strike would have elicited a sardonic "Welcome to the club" from the Americans, who at the time saw high-altitude air strikes as a key component of their mission.

But when General Stanley A. McChrystal took over the command of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan in June of this year, the strategy changed. The Americans had realized that past attacks with drones and combat aircraft involved too many Afghan civilian casualties. The US was increasingly perceived as a threat, causing sympathy for the Taliban to grow.

Hearts and Minds

Ironically, it is the Germans, who had repeatedly demanded such a sea change, who are not playing along with the new strategy. The bombing of the tanker trucks corresponded neither to the spirit nor the letter of the new directive.

In that respect, the air strike was also an attack on McChrystal's credibility. In a video message, he immediately communicated his sympathy to "the great people of Afghanistan" and said that "as commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people."

McChrystal wants to win the hearts and minds of the population -- and with them, the war. Having strongly scaled back air support, he would like to replace it with more troops on the ground.

Up until now, an increase in troop levels to 68,000 by the end of the year has been foreseen. McChrystal has talked of an additional increase without naming a figure. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, previously an opponent of an increased commitment in Afghanistan, is now open to such an expansion of the war. Sending an additional 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers to Afghanistan is currently being discussed in Washington, albeit only semi-publicly so far.

Small Successes

The issue for the Americans and all the other nations involved in the operation is whether Afghanistan can be handed over to its people in the foreseeable future; and if so, in what condition.

Many small projects have been successful in Afghanistan. Schools and roads have been built, millions of children are back in school and 80 percent of the population has access to basic health care.

But the huge reconstruction project that is Afghanistan, a project that promised to bring peace, democracy and prosperity to the country, has nevertheless failed. The beautiful plans forged at negotiating tables in Europe and the US had little to do with reality -- not with the reality in Afghanistan and not with the reality in the West. No one there was really ready to accept the enormous burden that needs to be shouldered if the Afghanistan project is to succeed.

Germany agreed to train the police. The Germans opened a model police academy in Kabul. They produced a few thousand police officers who are so good that they could put together a criminal case that would stand up in a German court. But Afghanistan doesn't really need such expertise. What it needs is village policemen -- and not a few thousand, but tens of thousands of them. The fact that people do not feel protected is the main reason for the failure of the West in Afghanistan.

The Italians were responsible for judicial reform. Credible prosecutors and courts are a rarity. The formula for justice in Afghanistan is simple: Anyone who can afford it can act with complete impunity. Drug barons, mafia kingpins, landlords and business people can all buy court rulings.

The British were responsible for the war on drugs, but two years ago, Afghanistan produced 8,200 tons of opium -- more than total global consumption. Production is now declining, but the British cannot take credit for that. Meanwhile, a narco-state has emerged, which is reflected in the treacherous symbiosis of politicians, the mafia and the rebels. All of them benefit from business as usual.


© DER SPIEGEL 38/2009
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