German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung hadn't really wanted to talk about Afghanistan on Wednesday morning. Jung, a member of Chancellor Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, had already announced the press conference the previous week. With the current legislative period drawing to a close he wanted to take stock of the last four years. However, as so often, there was just one issue that people associate with his ministry: The German deployment in Afghanistan -- a conflict Jung still refuses to call a war.
The interest is all the greater now that the Bundeswehr is involved in its biggest mission since its deployment began in the north of the country.
This week, German soldiers provided ongoing military backing for a wide-ranging offensive by Afghan forces against the Taliban in their stronghold of Chahar Dara, southwest of the city of Kunduz, where the Bundeswehr armed forces are stationed.
There have been fierce battles since the beginning of the operation, which the Afghan army says was launched on Sunday. General Murad Ali Murad, the commander of the Afghan troops, said he wanted the offensive to "cleanse" the region of the Taliban, in order to ensure a smooth presidential election next month. The operation would involve conducting searches for rebels and weapons "village by village and house by house." "We will only stop when the Taliban has disappeared," the general announced.
16 Taliban Killed
There have been heavy fire fights, particularly on Sunday. According to the Afghan authorities 16 Taliban fighters and four Afghan soldiers have been killed, while several police officers have been injured in attacks and by booby traps. In a tragic incident, German soldiers shot a young man close to the conflict area after he failed to stop at a checkpoint despite warning shots.
The Bundeswehr is supporting the Afghans with around 300 members of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF). Their primary role is to help secure the area around the fighting and provide reconnaissance. A German armoured Dingo military vehicle has been shot at and the Taliban has fired rockets at the German base in Kunduz. On Sunday they fired five rockets and on Monday another two. One of them hit the edge of the base but it didn't cause any damage.
The operation, which is being fought mainly by Afghan soldiers trained by the Bundeswehr, marks a further step away from Germany's original stabilization mission and towards a more offensive military operation. Slowly and without any official announcement, German soldiers are being drawn into the fight against the Taliban, who have massively increased their attacks on the Germans in recent months.
A "Deterrent Effect" on the Taliban
And even if no one wants to call this fighting a war, the change in tone speaks volumes. The situation has "developed negatively," says the German Army Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, which means now is the time to "carry out this escalation." Schneiderhan spoke clearly about the aim of the mission: To have a "deterrent effect" on the Taliban.
That kind of language would have been completely taboo at the beginning of the year.
Despite the heavy fighting, Jung and Schneiderhan sought to emphasize the positive. Several times, they mentioned that the very fact that the operation is under Afghan leadership shows that progress is being made with the training of the army. In NATO jargon, they never grew tired of praising the "Afghan face" of the operation. It is a success, they argued, that the Afghans are in a position to be able to lead an operation like that, and cooperation with the Germans is working.
At the same time, the Bundeswehr has also become considerably more assertive. For the first time, Marder infantry fighting vehicles -- which have heavy firepower and were only recently relocated from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kunduz -- have been deployed. On Sunday, one of these vehicles fired at an insurgent position. And the Germans fired three mortar rounds on areas the Taliban had retreated to.
Aerial Bombing and Missile Attacks
The very choice of weapons is demonstrative of the increasingly dicey situation. According to SPIEGEL ONLINE sources, missiles are also being fired by German fighter jets in northern Afghanistan for the first time. Following a first deployment of fighter jets on June 15 in northern Afghanistan by the ISAF international security force, most supplied by the United States, Afghan forces requested so-called "air support" for a second time on Sunday.
Such air support had long been considered taboo in northern Afghanistan. Indeed, the US has come under strong criticism for the large number of civilian casualties its air strikes have caused. Previously, the Germans had ordered the deployment of fighter jets during battles with the Taliban, but no orders had been given to drop bombs. The official line by the military up until now has been that it was sufficient to just fly at a low altitude and fire light ammunition from the loud fighter jets to push the Taliban into retreat.
On Sunday, however, the command was given to deploy live ammunition. Sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE that five Taliban were killed and two seriously injured after ISAF fighter jets fired missiles and aircraft cannons. The Bundeswehr claims that no collateral damage important enough to be mentioned had occurred in the operation. Still, the deployment of such heavy weaponry shows how heavy the fighting with the Taliban has recently become.
Afghans Want Further Operations Before Election
In addition to the ISAF fighter jets, US Army drones have also been dispatched. On Sunday, Predator drones -- known for their deadly attacks in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region -- fired Hellfire missiles at enemy Taliban positions near Kunduz after ISAF troops were fired on with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. No information has been released on whether the attacks resulted in any casualties. Up until now, the Bundeswehr has only requested Predator deployments to fire on explosives soldiers have found.
It is unclear how long the mission near Kunduz will last. Inspector General Schneiderhan spoke of "about one week." General Murad, on the other hand, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the Afghan forces want to continue to other area surrounding Kunduz after the mission considered to be Taliban hideaways. "Within the next week we will start further operations and we are hoping for support from the Germans," Murad said on Wednesday by telephone from Kunduz.