NATO Turns Screws on Germany The Coming Afghanistan Showdown

For months, NATO has been pressuring Germany to increase its commitment to the Afghanistan mission. Now, the complaints are getting louder. Berlin is doing its best to dodge the demands, but NATO may not be in a mood to listen.
Von Konstantin von Hammerstein und Alexander Szandar

Sports analogies were all the rage at the NATO defense ministers' conference in Vilnius, Lithuania late last week. The 26 member states were discussing the war in Afghanistan, but those attending preferred a more indirect path to talking about the issues at hand.

Germany's NATO allies would like to see the country take a larger role in Afghanistan.

Germany's NATO allies would like to see the country take a larger role in Afghanistan.

Foto: DPA

NATO Supreme Commander John Craddock got the metaphor avalanche going by comparing the Afghanistan operation with a soccer match. According to Craddock, there are times when it's expedient for offensive players to support the defense. Exactly, United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, and sometimes the defensive players have to focus on offense. His British counterpart went him one further: It is inconceivable, he said, for some teams to only play defense while others only play offense.

By that point there was no holding back. The Canadian defense minister served up rugby metaphors, his Portuguese counterpart likened his country to the sweeper in football and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung trotted out his football expertise. Were the football pitch divided by a 10-meter wall, coaches would have to take that into account, Jung pointed out in reference to the Hindu Kush Mountains that cut through Afghanistan. Given this division, he said, it makes no sense to rotate players from one side to the other.

'Some Prepared to Fight and Die, Others Not'

Such metaphors, of course, are a useful tool in toning down a conflict. And it was a serious clash that the defense ministers were engaged in. Just two days earlier, Gates told a Congressional hearing that NATO could be facing a divisive split. He told lawmakers that he doesn't want the trans-Atlantic alliance to turn into one "in which some partners are prepared to fight and die to protect people, while others are not." He repeated the warning on Sunday at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. His counterpart from Ottawa has even threatened to withdraw Canadian troops from embattled southern Afghanistan after February 2009 unless other NATO nations step up to the plate.

The largest elephant in the room in Vilnius was Germany. The German military, the Bundeswehr, has its troops deployed in the relatively peaceful north, while the Americans, British and Canadians are fighting and dying in the much more violent southern part of the country. Hence the demand that the Germans skip a couple of their peaceful northern patrols and face combat in the south every now and then. To use another football metaphor, they want the Germans to go where it hurts.

In Vilnius, the defense ministers were so caught up in their sports analogies that Jung seemed to have lost sight of what the message was. His counterparts from the other NATO countries have a "positive view" of the German contribution in Afghanistan, Jung told reporters. "All of the predictions that were made -- especially with regard to Germany -- haven't come true. In fact, quite the opposite is the case."

It was a more than generous interpretation of the truth. Jung, of all people, should know that the conflict wasn't resolved in Vilnius, but instead was postponed at best. Indeed, the respite wasn't long. In his speech in Munich on Sunday , Gates said "in NATO, some allies ought not to have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying."

Not the Case in Afghanistan

The bickering, though, is a far cry from the occasional spat between players on the soccer field. Indeed, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has defined Afghanistan as a test case for the future success of the world's most powerful military alliance. So far, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the alliance might, in fact, pass the test. An alliance only works if its members support one another. This is clearly not the case in Afghanistan.

The Canadians alone have lost 68 of their soldiers in combat in Afghanistan since 2002. They have repeatedly asked other member states for assistance and support. Their requests were directed in part at the Germans, but the government in Berlin has shown no inclination to listen .

Jung reiterated this position last week when he said: "Our focus remains in the north." Chancellor Angela Merkel once again warned of the dangers of dividing the Bundeswehr's mission. According to Merkel, it makes no sense for the Germans to "constantly rush back and forth between the various regions in Afghanistan." What she didn't mention was that the beleaguered allies aren't asking Berlin to temporarily redeploy its troops from the north to the south. Instead, they have long called for the Bundeswehr to station a substantial combat battalion to the south -- permanently and, more importantly, in addition to the German troops already deployed in Afghanistan.

Merely the thought of giving in to these demands makes the coalition government in Berlin nervous, especially with 86 percent of Germans opposed to a Bundeswehr combat mission in Afghanistan. Many already fear that the German military campaign in Afghanistan makes the country and its citizens a target for Islamist terrorists.

That fear seems justified. Late last week, intelligence officials warned of possible attacks by the al-Qaida terrorist network in Germany. Security experts believe that the deployment of Bundeswehr reconnaissance jets is the main reason the situation has changed. "Because of the use of Tornado jets, Germany is now clearly being targeted as a party to the war," says Bernhard Falk, the deputy head of the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation.

Anticipation of a Major Showdown

The chancellor and the relevant members of her cabinet, familiar with the mood among Germans, are reluctant to openly campaign for the Afghanistan mission. Instead, their approach has been to try to please everyone. Merkel has made it clear to voters that there will be no permanent Bundeswehr combat missions. At the same time, Berlin hopes to keep its NATO allies happy by gradually expanding the Bundeswehr's mandate.

There is little to suggest that the NATO partners will fall for this strategy. "We can do somersaults if we want to, but the pressure will only increase," says a senior official at the defense ministry. In the past, he says, the Americans would wait until a few weeks before the relevant debates in the German parliament, the Bundestag, before attempting to exert political pressure. "Now they start up three-quarters of a year before the debates."

Government experts in Berlin believe that the sharp rhetoric from the Pentagon, the public attacks and US Secretary of Defense Gates' uncompromising letter to Berlin demanding more involvement ahead of the NATO meeting in Vilnius were nothing but mild chatter aimed at ringing in the next round of the conflict -- the NATO summit in April, when the 26 heads of state are scheduled to meet in the Romanian capital Bucharest. Afghanistan will be at the top of the agenda.

There, the pressure on Germany could be intense. Many are expecting outgoing US President George W. Bush -- in an effort to secure an Afghanistan success story as a counterbalance to his failure in Iraq -- to exert even more pressure than his secretary of defense has. In anticipation of a major showdown, the relevant experts at the German chancellery, defense ministry and foreign office are quietly preparing a large-scale evasive maneuver. Merkel's mission is clear: She is determined to prevent German soldiers from having to fight in southern Afghanistan.

'The Americans Will Continue to Exert Pressure'

In Bucharest, the chancellor is expected to resort to her established arguments and campaign for the German approach of a "networked security policy" focused on the "civilian and military reconstruction effort." The allies are familiar with Merkel's old argument and are unlikely to be completely satisfied. Once the hard-core negotiations begin, Merkel will resort to the handful of military trump cards she has tucked away.

The chancellor used a similar strategy at the November 2006 NATO summit in Riga, Latvia. There, had Bush and other partners insisted on a stronger commitment from the Germans, Merkel was planning to offer up Tornado reconnaissance jets. The US president, though, proved not to be in a demanding mood and Merkel held back her trump card -- until a formal request from the alliance arrived in Berlin many weeks after the meeting.

For weeks, government experts have been debating behind closed doors over what they should include in Merkel's arsenal this time. At the same time, the defense minister has discreetly tested the waters at the Bundestag to determine how far the members in the two coalition parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU), would go in supporting the government.

Much has yet to be resolved, but the basic elements of the evasive maneuver seem to have been determined. They include:

  • significantly enlarging the field of operations for German troops and extending it westward;

  • increasing troop strength from the current level of 3,500 to a ceiling of up to 4,500 troops;

  • amending the Bundeswehr's mandate within the parliament, which currently ends in October, in June -- before the parliamentary summer recess -- and extending it until early 2010.

Government strategists hope that this plan will satisfy the NATO partners, but they also expect it to achieve a domestic political purpose. An early extension of the Bundeswehr mandate, they reason, would ensure that the controversial mission in Afghanistan could be kept out of the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2009. Besides, if the mandate is extended by 15 to 18 months, a new government will have a few weeks, following the election and coalition negotiations, to mull over its future Afghanistan strategy.

Complicated Math

Berlin also hopes that an early extension would satisfy the US president, because it would signal at least a certain level of accommodation. Bush is likely to react even more positively to Germany's plan to send additional troops. That, though, might be the most difficult part to push though parliament in Berlin.

Peter Struck, parliamentary floor leader for the SPD, though, has already indicated that he would go along with the plan. Struck has said that if Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan can show that he needs more troops, he will receive support.

The math, though, may prove more complicated. It has already been decided that some 200 German troops will replace the withdrawing Norwegian Quick Reaction Force. But the Norwegians aren't the only ones that need to be covered for. Danish and Czech troops currently serving with the German reconstruction teams in Kunduz and Faizabad will have to be replaced. Jung had originally intended to withdraw about 170 soldiers from a company stationed in Kabul, but he relented in the face of fierce opposition from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other NATO partners. Now Jung is at a loss as to where to find the additional soldiers without exceeding the upper limit of the current Bundestag mandate -- which allows for 3,500 German soldiers to be stationed in Afghanistan. Additional units will also be needed for the planned westward expansion of Germany's deployment region. Although NATO wants Germany to send troops to the south, Berlin prefers to expand their activities westward -- into Badghis Province and parts of Ghor Province, currently under Italian command.

The Germans are already familiar with Badghis, where they led a large-scale offensive against the Taliban in the fall that was executed jointly by Afghan units and the Norwegian Quick Reaction Force. Fourteen enemy troops were killed in the heavy fighting that ensued.

Circumventing the Mandate

The NATO supreme command in Kabul had temporarily removed the province from Italian command and added it to the German northern sector. It was a trick designed to circumvent the Bundestag mandate, under which German soldiers are only permitted to operate outside their own northern region "temporarily and to a limited extent." Now the Germans hope to turn what was a temporary solution into a permanent situation.

The German planners discarded other options. For instance, experts at the chancellery had initially proposed sending both the Tornado reconnaissance aircraft and fighter-bombers to Afghanistan. But when the Social Democrats were consulted they refused to support the plan.

The military leadership was also uninterested, arguing that there are already enough bombers in Afghanistan. Great Britain wants to test its Eurofighters in combat missions in Afghanistan soon, while France is testing its competing product, the Rafale. According to one officer, Germany, with its more than 25-year-old Tornados, would "only end up looking outdated."

German Air Force Inspector Klaus-Peter Stieglitz suggested that the reconnaissance Tornados could also be used to fire on the Taliban. But other military officials quickly dismissed the idea, arguing that the risk of killing German troops and innocent civilians was "much too high."

US Pressure Will Continue

Experts are still working out the details of the Merkel plan, but it is already clear that they will not have an easy time of convincing the NATO partners. The Americans, in particular, are not expected to be especially accommodating. The mood is already tense. In late January, Jung received a letter from hardliner Duncan Hunter, the ranking Republican on the influential Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives.

"In the eyes of the US Congress," Hunter wrote, "it is unacceptable that the United States should continue to be forced to deploy more and more troops, while a few NATO partners are unwilling to live up to their international obligations in Afghanistan." Hunter openly threatened sanctions, arguing that the Americans could terminate military cooperation at any time. The tone of the letter was so confrontational, a member of Jung's staff said angrily, "that we have no intention of responding."

Hardly anyone in Berlin accepts the illusion that the pressure will decrease after the US presidential election. In an interview with SPIEGEL, John McCain, the presumed Republic presidential candidate, said: "I'd like to see more German troops. That's completely obvious." On a more polite note, McCain added that the decision is ultimately in the hands of the German government and the German people.

Democratic contender Barack Obama agrees. If the United States increases its commitment in Afghanistan, Obama said, the Europeans would have to pull their own weight, "without the burdensome restrictions that have hampered NATO until now." His adversary, Hillary Clinton, says: "The military efforts must be increased."

As the German government's coordinator for trans-Atlantic relations, Social Democrat Karsten Voigt is highly familiar with Washington. "The Americans will continue to exert pressure," he predicts, "regardless of who is elected."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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