Ausgabe 30/2007

SPIEGEL Interview with the Inspector General of the German Army 'Our Sacrifices Do Not Leave Me Cold'

Wolfgang Schneiderhan, 60, Germany's highest-ranking officer and the inspector general of the German armed forces the Bundeswehr, discusses the risks of Germany's mission in Afghanistan, civilian casualties and accusations that German soldiers are shirking their responsibility.

A memorial service is held on May 23, 2007 for three German soldiers killed during a suicide bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

A memorial service is held on May 23, 2007 for three German soldiers killed during a suicide bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL: General Schneiderhan, once again German citizens have been kidnapped and possibly murdered in Afghanistan, and attacks on the Bundeswehr are on the rise. Is Germany moving into the crosshairs of the terrorists?

Schneiderhan: We are, of course, very concerned about these developments. But there are important distinctions to be made. Some kidnappings are probably attributable to criminal activity, rather than terrorism. In at least one recent case, the kidnappers were simply looking to extort a ransom. And as serious as the most recent attack in Kunduz was for our forces, when you look at the big picture it is still relatively quiet for the moment in the region where our troops are deployed, compared with the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. In saying that, the emphasis is on "for the moment." However, everyone who is in Afghanistan trying to bring stability to the country has long been in the crosshairs of the Taliban.

SPIEGEL: Three German soldiers were killed in the May attack in Kunduz. The incident promptly triggered a heated debate over the extension of Germany's Afghanistan mission planned for this fall. Is this what the Taliban are trying to do? Do they plan to isolate Germany from the international community?

Schneiderhan: Naturally our enemies are familiar with the discussion in Germany. They aren't exactly living in the Stone Age. They read newspapers and they probably read SPIEGEL ONLINE more quickly than I do. If they see a chance to damage the solidarity within the international community because the Germans immediately enter into a fundamental discussion calling the whole operation into question whenever something like the Kunduz attack happens, then they exploit that opportunity.

SPIEGEL: The threat against Germans is described as "considerable" in situation reports coming from Afghanistan. Do you anticipate further attacks leading up to the parliamentary decisions in September about Germany's Afghanistan mission?

Schneiderhan: It's certainly something I cannot rule out. We are dealing with enemies who do not abide by any of our legal or even moral rules of engagement, and who have only one goal: To spread fear and terror, and thus force us to give in or withdraw.

SPIEGEL: The controversy in Germany is focused on the counterterrorism campaign Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). As part of this operation, there have repeatedly been air attacks that have often claimed civilian lives, which only help to reinforce the Taliban's propaganda.

Schneiderhan: It is, of course, regrettable when there are casualties among innocent civilians, and we must do everything in our power to prevent this from happening. But we must distinguish between cause and effect. The cause is that the terrorists are attacking us, thereby forcing our troops to defend themselves. Furthermore, our enemies are civilians who wear no uniforms or national emblems. They deliberately misuse innocent people as shields in order to bring our soldiers into disrepute. And they are pleased to see that hardly anyone mentions the victims of their vicious attacks.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many in Germany are critical of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Schneiderhan: That's too simplistic. I am much more concerned that the terrorists are misusing public opinion for their purposes and are thereby gaining the upper hand.

SPIEGEL: Opinion polls show that the tactic is working. The majority of Germans want German forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. Many members of parliament plan to vote this fall for an extension of the NATO mandate for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but not for Germany's continued participation in the counterterrorism operation.

Schneiderhan: From a military point of view, OEF continues to be necessary. The terrorists are still trying to maintain strongholds in Afghanistan and in the regions along the border with Pakistan. They want to use force to prevent Afghanistan from being stabilized. The mandate for fighting terrorism is the OEF mandate. The idea behind the ISAF mission is different. However, the more successful the counterterrorism operation is, the safer and more successful ISAF will be. And the more successful ISAF is, the less we'll need the counterterrorism mission.

SPIEGEL: Would our allies understand a decision to withdraw from OEF?

Schneiderhan: For Germany, Operation Enduring Freedom has a lot to do with international solidarity. In my opinion, a withdrawal would be a catastrophe in terms of our alliances.


© DER SPIEGEL 30/2007
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