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.

Foto: AP

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.

'It Would Be Foolish to Specify a Date for a Withdrawal'

SPIEGEL: The Bundeswehr detained several suspects after the attack in Kunduz, but then it had to release them. Why?

Schneiderhan: We can't lock anyone up. And we have no one to whom we can turn over suspects and expect safe and effective criminal prosecution. Unfortunately there is still no functioning judicial system in Afghanistan, one with public prosecutors and police forces who are not open to corruption. Nevertheless, Afghanistan is a sovereign state where we have no policing powers. We are only there to provide support.

SPIEGEL: You could soon be providing even more support -- by sending troops to the more volatile south.

Schneiderhan: We have no intention of doing so. This is not open for discussion.

SPIEGEL: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is already pushing for such a move.

Schneiderhan: The foreign minister has said that he wants to hear the military's recommendations first. We are discussing the issue with him for that purpose. We do agree that we need to and want to improve the training of Afghan security forces.

SPIEGEL: Does this also apply to the south?

Schneiderhan: My concern lies with the northern region, because that's the area for which we are responsible. The attack in Kunduz demonstrated that we do not have any stabile Afghan security forces around our bases. There is an urgent need for local police and military forces. We are very happy to train them, and we are even prepared to do so in regions where neither ISAF nor Afghan security forces are at the moment. Two of the nine northern provinces are bigger than (the German state of) Hesse! Our goal is security in the whole of Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL: And if President Hamid Karzai orders a battalion to be transferred from the north to the south, will the German training personnel stay behind, as they did once before in May?

Schneiderhan: I did not feel that the battalion was ready for combat at the time. Under the conditions which I was aware of, I could not take responsibility for sending our training team together with the troops.

SPIEGEL: And as a result, Germans faced renewed criticism in North America, where they were accused of shirking their responsibility, along the lines of: Your soldiers sit around drinking beer while ours are being killed.

Schneiderhan: These accusations are not only unfair, but also absurd. I would only consider them relevant if they came from the ISAF commander in Kabul or from NATO headquarters. But neither of them leveled such accusations against us. I would caution against making snap judgments. Our sacrifices do not leave me cold. From the last memorial service, I know how difficult it is for families when their sons accompany the bodies of their dead comrades back to Germany and then immediately afterwards board planes to return to Afghanistan again.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the allies are pushing for German troops to be deployed to the front in the south.

Schneiderhan: And they're certainly free to do so. But just imagine the public debate in Germany if a German training team were to accompany Afghans into the interior to fight other Afghans. The Germans get involved in the fighting and call in air support. OEF sends in planes and there are innocent civilian casualties. I shudder to think what the reaction in Berlin would be.

SPIEGEL: Is Germany's highest-ranking military commander advising against a deployment in the south merely because this would be unacceptable to the German public?

Schneiderhan: No. My argument is based more on a military perspective. But if you're saying that the Germans should finally go south to improve their image, then we could end up paying a high price. The level of danger in the north is already high enough for me to fear the worst every time the telephone rings at an unusual hour. We shouldn't be trying to do everything at once. The real question is much more: Where exactly is the "front" when you are fighting an asymmetrical conflict with terrorists?

SPIEGEL: Do you mean that it is completely possible that more soldiers could be going to Afghanistan in the fall, but only to the north?

Schneiderhan: Numbers are not the issue. And as far as responsibilities go, we abide by the agreements reached within NATO. After all, we were the first to assume responsibility for an entire region. Everyone else was overjoyed by our decision at the time. Nobody can accuse us of anything in that regard.

SPIEGEL: And we're talking about trainers, not combat troops?

Schneiderhan: Correct. There is now an agreement between ISAF and the defense minister in Kabul, under which Afghan units will be permanently assigned to specific zones in the future, which will eliminate the need to send troops from one part of the country to the next. When that happens we will be able to make meaningful progress with our training program, which is in any case more of a long-term matter.

SPIEGEL: When do you think the deployment could be brought to an end?

Schneiderhan: I wouldn't care to make any predictions. There is the idea that Afghan forces will at some point be able to handle the country's security on their own. The international community could then at least substantially reduce its troop strength. But it would be foolish to specify a date at this stage.

Interview conducted by Ulrike Demmer, Georg Mascolo and Alexander Szandar.