The disaster fits neatly into five and a half lines: That's all the military analysts at the Bonn-based military operations headquarters need to paint a realistic picture of the daily violence in their confidential report for the German defense minister. It takes less than six lines of data, facts and figures to sum up the dilemma the West faces in Afghanistan.
During the three-day period from May 18-20, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) documented "61 security incidents nationwide," the German military analysts wrote in last Monday's report. Two incidents occurred in the area covered by Regional Command North, which is led by the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr. Twenty-one others occurred in the east, and 38 in the south, in a region where Dutch troops are stationed. The 61 incidents, according to the report, included "exchange of fire/battles (40 times), attacks with explosives (14 times), including three suicide bombings (in Kandahar, Kunduz and Paktia provinces), and indirect fire (7 times)." Three ISAF soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in the "incidents."
It was a dramatic weekend, all things considered, and yet the report's authors coolly summarize it as follows: "The nature and number of incidents, as well as their geographic distribution, are typical of similar periods in recent weeks."
But it was atypical for the Bundeswehr, the German military. This time three men from Bonn, Kiel and the town of Crumstadt in Hesse fell victim to a suicide bomb in a market in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. Each new wooden coffin that is unloaded to the sound of drum rolls in a Spartan aircraft hangar at a German Air Force base at Cologne-Wahn increases the level of distress in Germany, not only among the soldiers' comrades and family members, but also in the public eye. The operation in Afghanistan has already cost 21 German soldiers' lives.
The campaign in Afghanistan, conceived as a swift crusade against the Taliban when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were still fresh in our minds, is turning into an ongoing conflict. Instead of the peace it was intended to bring to the country, the ISAF effort has become a bitter conflict in which Western troops face off against Islamist jihadists and the country's many warlords.
Politicians in Berlin have reacted nervously to the escalation. The German parliament, the Bundestag, will be faced with a decision on whether to extend what are currently three separate Bundeswehr mandates in Afghanistan: Germany's participation in ISAF, the NATO-led force mandated by the United Nations Security Council, the deployment of six German Tornado reconnaissance aircraft, and the involvement of up to 100 German special forces troops in the US-led effort to combat terrorism in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
The last three German deaths in the Kunduz market have triggered a vocal debate in Germany over the sense and purpose of the country's involvement in Afghanistan.
The troops themselves have proven surprisingly resilient. When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid a visit to the Bundeswehr's ISAF camp in Kunduz, he came to boost the spirits of the troops. He planned to remind them of the dark days under the Taliban, when women were stoned to death and girls were not allowed to attend school. But his planned pep talk seemed unnecessary. "We can't give up now," said one of the soldiers, "otherwise their lives will have been sacrificed for nothing."
Steinmeier met with a reconstruction team of about 20 soldiers and civilian personnel at the barracks early Tuesday morning, and after overcoming their initial shock, they all, by and large, seemed motivated to continue. But the same resoluteness wasn't in evidence on the home front. The small Left Party has called for Germany to withdraw from Afghanistan altogether; the larger Green Party and even some members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) want to see German troops withdraw from Operation Enduring Freedom. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, SPD party chairman Kurt Beck called for a "review" of the mission, and even Chancellor Angela Merkel, a pro-American Christian Democrat, has indicated her support of the review.
The core issue revolves around how "military" the West's military mission ought to be. Is the German approach in northern Afghanistan -- integrating security and development aid -- the right one? Or are the Americans and the British more successful with their hard-hitting, offensive strikes against insurgents in the contested south and east? Or is it possible that the US-British approach is in fact jeopardizing the Germans' small measure of success in the north?
Accepting Civilian Casualties
Germany's involvement in OEF is especially controversial in parliament because so many see the operation as a symbol of a ruthless US military campaign that continually causes -- and accepts as collateral damage -- civilian casualties. "We cannot accept that the actions of an ally, the United States, in which many innocent lives are lost, jeopardizes the success of NATO's entire ISAF operation," says Jürgen Trittin, a Green politician.
Critics can cite reports from soldiers stationed in the country to reinforce their cause: Many are now saying that although anti-terrorism operations were important in the past, they've become less vital than civilian reconstruction. Peaceful methods used in the north, they point out, are the most effective for generating popular support.
One German officer says the necessary relationships can only develop as a result of years of cooperation. They can also be destroyed by a single air strike. The US anti-terrorism units' uncompromising approach touches upon a sensitive issue in civilian-military reconstruction work. According to the German officer, the diplomats and NATO forces often work out compromises with former warlords or clan leaders. Although these people belong "before the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague," they play an important, temporary part in pacifying the region. If the Afghan partners were attacked, says the German officer, the difficult task of bringing stability to the region could fail.
Opponents of OEF point out the differences between the American use of brute force and ISAF's more level-headed approach. But even these units have long been embroiled in struggles against "military opposition forces," the military's euphemistic term for the unholy alliance of the Taliban, Al-Qaida, the drug mafia and the militias of various warlords. The Afghans, say OEF's critics, lost sight of the differences between the various Western military formations long ago.
The offices of ISAF and OEF are located only a few blocks apart in Kabul. Each of the two organizations has one officer assigned to the other organization's military staff to "deconflict" in sensitive situations. According to one German general, "two different operations in one country make for a sporting challenge."
The two command centers are supposed to carve out different "conflict zones," which they then reserve for themselves. But in reality the two sides -- Americans, in particular -- tend to play their cards tight to the chest. "The left hand often doesn't know what the right hand is doing," says Winfried Nachtwei, a Green Party military expert who recently visited Kabul on a fact-finding mission, along with fellow Greens Jürgen Tritten and Renate Künast. In truth, said Elke Hoff, a member of Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP) as well as the parliamentary defense committee, after a visit to Afghanistan there is "total confusion." Even the defense minister has the "impression" that some campaigns are "not coordinated."
An overlap of authority
ISAF's commander is Dan McNeill, a US four-star general who has about 37,000 troops under his command. The United States provides the largest contingent, with 15,000 troops, followed by the British (5,200) and the Germans (3,000). To improve coordination of the various missions, the NATO partners agreed that a deputy of McNeill's in Kabul would guide the combat missions of the ISAF and OEF units.
But this agreement hasn't panned out so well. David Rodriguez, a two-star general, has been in command of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan since April. Rodriguez also heads ISAF's Regional Command (East), creating a confusing overlap of authority. As commander of ISAF, Rodriguez reports to NATO General McNeill. But as head of OEF, he often leaves his fellow US officers in the dark, because his orders come from US Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida.
But the teams associated with these two operations are not the only outfits constantly stepping on each other's toes in Afghanistan. They're joined by a dangerously confusing array of other units:
- US Special Forces, though officially assigned to OEF commander Rodriguez, generally receive orders directly from the Pentagon.
- Special units of the CIA, of whose existence even officers at NATO and the Bundeswehr are unaware, at least officially. Military officials have no illusions when it comes to the role these units play. For them the CIA forces are simply "murder commandos," because they are in Afghanistan specifically to hunt down al-Qaida members.
- Officers of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) who, together with militarily trained Afghan helpers, destroy poppy fields and are "causing trouble" with drug mafia for the reconstruction teams, in the view of former British commander David Richards.
Unlike German politicians and Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan, senior military leaders take a positive view of the cooperation between ISAF and OEF. "Without the support of the OEF troops," warns one NATO general, "ISAF might as well pack its bags." American units have rushed to ISAF's aid often enough. Without the anti-terrorism forces in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, says a high-ranking officer at the Ministry of Defense in Berlin, Taliban fighters could march into Kabul practically unchallenged.
This is why Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung is so opposed to a strict partition of the forces into a "good ISAF" and a "bad OEF." The regular OEF troops are not the ones who create problems for ISAF, say NATO military officials. "The Special Forces are the real problem," says one German general.
It has been Special Forces missions in particular that have been responsible for large numbers of casualties within the civilian population. "We can no longer accept civilian casualties and the factors that cause them," an angry President Hamid Karzai recently said in Kabul, "the patience of our people is coming to an end."
Less than two weeks after Karzai made these remarks, dozens more civilians were killed when US Special Forces, finding themselves in a tight spot, called (again) for air support.
The incident also set the German defense minister against the Americans. US troops would have to be more careful when it came to the civilian population, Jung demanded. "We are liberators, not occupiers," he said.
At the urging of the Germans, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer presented US President George W. Bush with the civilian-casualties problem, but Bush sidestepped. He said that although he grieved with the Afghan families who "are losing innocent family members," the casualties are the result of the Taliban's tactic of often surrounding themselves with "innocent civilians." Bush was quick to add that the NATO allies should shoulder a greater share of the "burdens and risks."
There has been little support for increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, at least in Germany. The SPD and Christian Democrat (CDU) coalition government is at least willing to increase development aid beyond the currently planned budget of €100 million; Berlin is also willing to consider sending more police and military training personnel for the Afghan army. But sending more troops is off the table. Germany's cooperation with the United States -- at least as part of OEF -- seems to have neared its end.
"We must take a close look at whether this mission is still serving its purpose," says Walter Kolbow, Deputy Chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, echoing the sentiments of his fellow SPD members. Even military experts within the SPD, who are normally loyal to the government, want to see the Bundestag withdraw its authorization of the German Special Forces mission.
It could be the price the CDU will pay to convince the Social Democrats to lend their support to extending the remainder of Germany's Afghanistan mandate this fall. The Chancellor and CDU legislators have already indicated that they might accommodate the SPD on this issue.
"Militarily speaking," doing away with the 100 German Special Forces troops would be of "little significance," says British General Richards. But the German withdrawal would have a significant political impact, as it would take Germany yet another step away from the "unlimited solidarity" former Chancellor Schröder promised the United States for its fight against terrorism in the fall of 2001.
Schröder had a staunch ally in Germany at the time: then-opposition leader Angela Merkel. In a telegram to the US president, Merkel also promised him her "solidarity." "The CDU," she wrote at the time, "is firmly behind the United States in the fight against international terrorism."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan