Germany's Bundeswehr army is being transformed into an international intervention force. Advocates are more convinced than ever that objectives can be achieved by force. It is high time for a forthright debate, but is it welcome?
It is October 16, 2008 -- a perfectly normal day in Afghanistan. Once the day's missions are completed, a US Air Force officer summarizes the successes in a brief report entitled "Oct. 16 airpower summary." Nothing is secret: A-10 Thunderbolts fired at "enemy fighters ... attacking coalition forces with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades near Kabul." In the vicinity of Lashkar Gah in Helmand, "coalition aircraft" dropped a guided bomb onto "enemy fighters firing upon friendly forces with small arms." US Navy Super Hornets dropped "a GBU-12 and GBU-38s onto a compound containing enemies of Afghanistan." Additional A-10 and F-15F fighter jets conducted a "show of force to deter enemy activities near Kabul." US Navy F/A-18Es and "coalition aircraft" are deployed for the same purpose in the vicinity of Lashkar Gah.
The German flags on every Bundeswehr vehicle in Afghanistan have a clear message for locals: We're not the ones dropping the bombs.
October 16, 2008, is also a perfectly normal day in Germany. The Bundestag is due to meet in Berlin with the Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan once again on the agenda. Members of parliament will vote on a motion submitted by the government to extend Germany's participation in NATO-led ISAF, an operation that has been going on since late 2001. The mandate is up for renewal for the ninth time, and there are plans to beef up the force. At the end of the session, the representatives will give the government permission to send 1,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan as part of ISAF, bringing the total number of German troops to 4,500.
We Take Care of Things
Anyone who has been following the parliamentary debates on the ISAF mission and who takes the time to read the government's motion will find it hard to believe that the subject matter is the same as that in the Pentagon's daily reports. The bombing attacks described in great detail in the US Air Force summaries are not mentioned in the motion or in statements by the government. Furthermore, the bill provides parliament with no information on the scope of the violence or the number of people killed by NATO weapons or rebel groups. There is also no mention in the seven-page document of the air war that ISAF is fighting. The daily air strikes appear to be completely irrelevant to Germany, although it is the third largest military power in Afghanistan after the United States and Great Britain.
With regard to other developments, however, the government is all too happy to provide detailed information. In a passage praising its own work and that of ISAF, it emphasizes that "nearly 75 percent of all boys and 35 percent of all girls" are now attending school. The government also toots its own horn when it writes that "85 percent of the population has access to basic medical care." Given these figures, the reader might forget that the government is applying for permission to extend a mission by armed German forces.
Instead of fighting, it would seem, Germany's job is to take care of things. It takes care of "establishing state institutions" and "the rule of law," of "improving living conditions" and ensuring "compliance with human rights." What could anyone possibly have against that? Thunderbirds and Super Hornets, fighter jets and laser-guided bombs simply do not fit into the picture.
According to the government, the situation in Afghanistan has little to do with a violent struggle or an armed conflict. In fact, the German government appears to have blacklisted the word "war." Anybody who suggests that something like war is happening in Afghanistan risks being rebuked, especially if he or she suggests that the Bundeswehr is participating in this war as part of the NATO-led ISAF. German soldiers "are not waging war there," says Green politician Jürgen Trittin. "They are only securing the reconstruction effort. That's a fact."
Whereas the government does cautiously concede that there are "deficiencies even in the security situation," this falls far short of admitting there is a "war," never mind acknowledging that the Bundeswehr has anything to do with it. And of course these "deficiencies" must not be allowed to detract from the Bundeswehr's successful track record so far. To explain why, the government offers a two-pronged argument just to be on the safe side. On the one hand, "the international military presence and Afghan security forces" are still in a position to "prevent wide-scale coordinated action by forces hostile to the government." In other words, the government considers it a success that the military groups fighting ISAF do not control any contiguous regions and are unable to attack in large formations. Although these forces have made it their goal to drive international troops out of Afghanistan and depose the elected government, "they usually avoid open confrontation, conscious of their inferiority."
Now that almost sounds offensive. Unlike men of honor -- such is the tenor of the government's analysis -- enemy troops refuse to fight out in the open. Rather, they take "an asymmetrical approach aimed at intimidation and attrition." Consistent with this strategy, they "attack civilians, kill government representatives, and carry out bomb and arson attacks."
Guerilla Warfare for Dummies
The latest analyses cited to explain why ISAF cannot gain control of the country are banalities that reveal a superficial knowledge of guerilla warfare. Did anyone at the Defense Ministry really expect anything different? In what way, if not "asymmetrically," could rebels fight the most powerful military alliance in the world? And could anyone really have expected the military groups in Afghanistan to arm themselves with the latest high-tech weapons and take on the ISAF troops as equals?
If the German government really means to suggest that the mission would be a success were it not for this "asymmetrical warfare," it is high time for its members to rethink their antiquated idea of war. As British political scientist and activist Mary Kaldor writes, the Iraq war illustrates "the dangers of not adapting one's own idea of war to new global conditions." This is also true of the war in Afghanistan.
The government's second line of argument is that problems are mainly encountered in "the south and east of the country, where more than 90 percent of security-related incidents are concentrated." In other words: the problems occur outside the area for which the Bundeswehr is responsible, and we therefore have nothing to do with them. There might be something like war in the south and east of Afghanistan but our soldiers are far removed from it, and parliament need not worry that members of the Bundeswehr are affected by these "security-related" incidents. The self-praise in these passages is unmistakable: in the north, where the good Germans are stationed, there are fewer incidents than in the south and east, where the Americans call the shots. The modus operandi and presence of the Bundeswehr are not the problem. Unfortunately the Americans and some other allies -- the British, the Canadians, and the Dutch -- are not doing as good a job.
There are two ways to interpret this insistence on distinguishing between northern Afghanistan and the rest of the country. The first is that the German government really does not see itself as part of ISAF. After all, ISAF is responsible for all of Afghanistan, and the attacks on alleged or actual Taliban positions also take place in the framework of ISAF operations. But if this is really the government's view, its efforts to justify the Bundeswehr mission by emphasizing the need for international solidarity have no foundation.
The other possibility is that the German government regards the north as one country and the south and east as another. In this case, it would have a more or less plausible reason to emphasize the positive developments in its operational area in the north, but this view is hardly compatible with the declared goal of creating a single Afghan state.
If the differences between the north and other parts of the country were only a matter of "greater sensitivity," it would only be consistent if the Germans temporarily traded places with units stationed in the south and the east in order to show the NATO forces operating there how to do the job right. Of course, this will never happen. The reason it is quieter in the north is not because Germans are there. It is the other way around: Germans are stationed there because it is quieter than the south. The Bundeswehr is largely surrounded by friendly forces and by the warlords who profited from the US and NATO-led invasion of the country. In contrast, the NATO troops in the south and east face groups that currently play the unfortunate role of being considered enemies of the United States -- instead of being on its payroll.
The vast majority of figures in government, think tanks, and the media do not just cling to an antiquated idea of war. They are also fond of suggesting that the Bundeswehr is doing a superior job to the US Armed Forces. The very same people who have been preaching the inviolate "brotherhood in arms" with NATO and the United States for years are now exploiting anti-American sentiment in the broader population to further their cause. This is not only true of the mission in Afghanistan, but of the political promotion of the Bundeswehr as a whole.
America drops bombs and the Bundeswehr rebuilds the country. The large German flags on every Bundeswehr vehicle in Afghanistan have a clear message: Please don't shoot, we're not Americans! We might support the ISAF operations, but we're doing it the right way. We're stationed in Afghanistan, but we aren't like the others.
The Greatest Absurdity in the German Debate
This attitude is key to understanding one of the greatest absurdities in the German debate on military policy: the nearly cult-like insistence on a separation between the ISAF mission on the one hand and the participation in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) on the other. The relationship between these two missions was highly unusual from the start.
Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) is the name that the U.S. government gave to all activities that were allegedly directed against "international terrorism" after the attacks on September 11, 2001. OEF's main focus was the war in Afghanistan. In November 2001, the Bundestag approved German participation in OEF in a mandate that included, among other things, the deployment of special forces, the presence of naval units off the Horn of Africa, and the stationing of chemical reconnaissance vehicles in Kuwait. In doing so, it cited the right to self-defense granted every state under Section 51 of the United Nations Charter. By formal definition, Germany has deployed its special forces in Afghanistan and frigates off the coast of Djibouti in order to defend against a military assault on the territory of the United States. Seven years after the attacks in New York and Washington, this link can still be found in Bundestag resolutions for the mandates. Accordingly, the Bundeswehr is still engaged in defending the United States.
In December 2001, the Bundestag passed the mandate for the ISAF. Its objective was not only to defend the transitional government established in the wake of the Afghanistan Conference at Petersberg in Bonn, but also to protect international personnel in Kabul. The mandates of the UN Security Council and the Bundestag were strictly limited to the Afghan capital. This restriction was loosened in 2003, when the Bundeswehr set up an outpost in Kunduz, and was ultimately lifted in 2005. Ever since, the ISAF has operated throughout Afghanistan, and a large number of US and British troops are now under ISAF instead of OEF command. Their operations have not changed.
The parallel existence of OEF and ISAF in Afghanistan has been absurd from the start. On the one hand, ISAF installed a so-called protection force in the country. On the other, many of the same states that took part in ISAF continued to fight the war launched against Al Qaeda in October 2001. The only difference is that they are now under a formally separate command. In other words, the UN Security Council ordered a protection force to be deployed by the very same states that were engaged in an offensive military operation in the country.
The justification presented in the Bundestag mandates for German participation is equally absurd. The OEF mandate cites not only Section 51 of the UN charter, but also Section 5 of the NATO Treaty, which contains the alliance's collective defense clause. Nevertheless, as an organization, NATO has had nothing to do with implementing OEF. After September 11, the alliance invoked the mutual defense clause, but paradoxically, NATO is not involved in waging war. So far OEF has been carried out outside the NATO framework by a loose "coalition of the willing" under US command. The opposite is true of the ISAF, which has been organized by NATO. Unlike OEF, though, no attempt has been made to legitimize the ISAF by citing the mutual defense clause in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Rather, NATO sees itself here as a sub-contractor of the UN Security Council. Strictly speaking, the ISAF has nothing to do with the "war on terror."
If we accept this extraordinary definition of the Bundestag mandate at face value, the OEF is actually a mission of defense. But even the politicians who routinely pass the mandate every year do not seem to believe this. How else can one explain their verbal contortions and distancing efforts?
And yet, the question remains: what exactly is going on here? The Bundestag approves participation in a mission that has been submitted by the government. So far, so good. A few weeks later the government applies for an additional mission, and the motion also passes the Bundestag. Now, we can be opposed to either mission. That is irrelevant here, and up to this point the government makes a plausible case. But then, whenever the ISAF mandate is up for renewal, Berlin attempts to drum up support by arguing that this mission has nothing to do with the other one -- the OEF -- which was approved by the same government a few weeks apart.
In a kind of political autoimmune response, the executive and legislative are putting a significant amount of their political energy into distancing themselves from a military operation to which they have contributed. The politicians who demand that one mission be distinguished from the other are in reality attempting to divorce themselves from their own resolutions. There are only two possibilities: either parliament supports the objectives and tactics formulated in the OEF mandate, in which case there is no reason to hide behind a supposed difference between the two missions, or it does not, in which case German lawmakers must vote it down.
The problem facing many parliamentarians is that they have read a great deal into the mandates for foreign missions, and they are now confusing this with their actual contents. There is, however, a simple remedy: they could finally take the time to carefully read the resolutions they have passed. After all, the mandate for OEF contains a clear description of the mission: "The goal of this operation is to render terrorist command and training facilities inoperative, to combat, capture and put terrorists on trial, and to keep third parties from providing support for terrorist activities."
A military mandate can hardly go further than the explanations in the Bundestag mandate for OEF. They provide tremendous leeway when it comes to structuring the mission. The only thing they do not impose are restrictions. "Render inoperative" -- this means, in cases of doubt, destroying facilities, and killing enemy fighters. It also means the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. If the armed forces of other nations were to engage in such actions, one would hear criticism in Germany of unacceptable "target killings." But it is apparently acceptable to give such orders to German troops. Bundeswehr soldiers have in fact never been deployed in this manner, but the mandate does make such missions possible. Strictly speaking, the mandate would not be fulfilled if the Bundeswehr did not perform these tasks.
This applies to the rest of the Bundestag resolution as well. After all, "fighting" means exactly that: armed battle. And even the goal of capturing and putting terrorists on trial is described with unmistakable clarity.
When members of the Bundestag vote on mandates for foreign missions, it is "on the record." Such recorded votes are otherwise only used for a small number of parliamentary bills and resolutions. The decision made by every member is clear for all to see and is entered into the minutes. Even if members of the Bundestag cannot be expected to carefully read every single bill they consider in a legislative period, they should certainly be expected to do so for recorded votes. Nevertheless, many representatives have apparently not read the OEF mandate with particular care. In October 2006, Claudia Roth, chairwoman of the Greens, stated: "It is intolerable to me that German soldiers should participate or watch when people are tortured or brought to camps without legal counsel." At this time, media coverage was dominated by reports about Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen who accused members of German special forces of torturing him in a US camp in Afghanistan. One undisputed fact that emerged from these charges is that German soldiers have been deployed in such camps, which is probably sanctioned by the mandate.
Roth's statements reveal the grave illusions that many leading German politicians harbor about Bundeswehr missions. Were there not reliable media reports as early as 2002 describing conditions in the camps run by US forces for those prisoners identified as "enemy combatants" or terrorists? And how can a politician truly be horrified about the deployment of German special forces in such U.S. camps when he or she gave them the mandate to "capture terrorists" in the framework of the OEF resolution? After all, it follows from the parliamentary motion that German special forces would either take prisoners themselves, as is specified in the mandate, or participate in US operations to hunt down actual or suspected terrorists. What other duties were the OEF troops in Afghanistan supposed to have?
'We Germans Do not Fight Wars'
Like most members of the Bundestag, the majority of the population regards the debate on the Bundeswehr as a tedious side issue. On the 50th anniversary of the Bundeswehr in 2005, German President Horst Köhler aptly described this attitude as "friendly indifference." According to the president, though the Bundeswehr was "acknowledged in society," it was not exactly clear what this meant. One rarely observed a "real interest in the Bundeswehr."
With this statement the German president qualified a phrase that was often repeated in the run-up to Bundeswehr anniversary celebrations. On such occasions one often hears talk of the Bundeswehr's "broad social acceptance" and standing as a respected institution in the Federal Republic. It may very well be true that the Bundeswehr enjoys social acceptance. There is, in any case, very little evidence that Germans generally reject it. Surveys conducted by the Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences confirm this finding, and it is one that the Ministry of Defense also likes to emphasize.
However, the Bundeswehr that most people have in their heads when they are questioned has increasingly little to do with the real Bundeswehr. In fact, there is probably no other state institution that has undergone such radical change and whose new role is so poorly understood by the public. The image of the German armed forces that influences these positive evaluations has very little in common with their changed structures and mission plans. Furthermore, the data paints a very different picture -- a picture that would be more evident to the public if the interviewers dared to delve beyond blanket assessments. The Bundeswehr may be acknowledged in German society, but the same cannot be said of its military missions. Although interviewers hired by the Bundeswehr Institute mistakenly called the ISAF a "United Nations peacekeeping force in Afghanistan," only 30 percent of respondents said they fully supported the mission.
The discrepancy between the positive image of the Bundeswehr as a whole and the more negative views of specific missions is no accident. Rather, it is result of a strategy that has aimed to slowly make the German public accustomed to German soldiers taking part in military operations-a public that, until 15 years ago, believed the best place for soldiers was in the barracks and the purpose of the military was to defend the country.
The makeover began when a few medics were sent to Cambodia in 1992 and a small contingent of troops was stationed in Somalia in 1993. These missions involved little risk. The Bundeswehr was presented as a troop of lightly armed Red Cross helpers in uniform. This policy of gradual change met with no significant resistance. The public became accustomed to these harmless Bundeswehr missions. However, there was collateral damage for the advocates of intervention. The idea of no risk that was initially disseminated to promote the missions stuck in the public's mind, and the population now began to believe that all foreign missions are generally safe.
Orwellian talk of "peace enforcement," "high-intensity operations," and "robust missions" has primarily encouraged one thing: robust illusions. The advocates of intervention are more convinced than ever that they can achieve any objective by force. Among the many people who have given the subject little or no thought, this sort of euphemistic talk has led to the idea that the Bundeswehr is a charity organization that distributes wool blankets and canned food.
Such views can even be heard in parliament. During the first debate on the deployment of Bundeswehr Tornado fighter jets in Afghanistan, a few members of a governing party expressed their fear that the Bundeswehr could be drawn into military actions. And during a debate in 2008 on the formation of the German Quick Reaction Force within ISAF, one Social Democrat is even said to have asked the military policy expert in her own party to promise that "they won't fire any shots down there." One might feel inclined to laugh out loud, but it in fact only takes the government line seriously, without realizing that the government's goal has always been to play down events in Afghanistan.
A Question of Promotion
One contradiction has emerged in this context that no advocate of intervention has been able to resolve. On the one hand, there are more and more complaints, some made publicly, that the majority of the population does not support the foreign missions of the Bundeswehr. On the other hand, members of the Bundestag are often heard saying that decisions as important as those on the Bundeswehr should not be dependent on public opinion.
The foreign policy spokesman of the Social Democrats, Gert Weisskirchen, said: "Anyone who abstains from voting or does not vote to extend the government's mandate strengthens the Taliban." In doing so, he declares the critics of a Bundeswehr mission to be the actual enemy. A real democratic debate works differently. Politicians cannot complain that citizens of a democratic state are not convinced of the necessity of the Bundeswehr mandates that the great majority of parliament has passed while at the same time pretending that the high art of foreign and military policy is unsuitable for public debate.
It is therefore questionable whether there is a real desire for a forthright debate on military policy in Germany, all complaints about the public's "friendly indifference" notwithstanding. When criticism of the Afghanistan mission grew louder in early 2008, the leading military policy experts in the Bundestag apparently felt there had been enough discussion. "I could imagine greater PR efforts to communicate the reasons for the mission to the people," said Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs, at the Munich Security Conference in 2008. FDP politician Birgit Homburger also called on fellow Bundestag members to improve PR: "Above all, we must attempt to make people in Germany understand why the Bundeswehr has been deployed in Afghanistan."
Green politician Jürgen Trittin has even complained about the use of a word that most reserve for major, drawn-out conflicts. "It is a fundamental error," said Trittin before the Bundestag, "that 'war' is being waged in Afghanistan." So the Pentagon and US Congress use the word "war" -- to Trittin it is still a fundamental error. The counterview he proposes is that the coalition partners are "attempting, on the basis of a UN mandate, to rebuild a country that has plunged into war as a result of irresponsibility, the intervention of other powers, and its own failings." War is thus something that is waged by other "powers." Ditto for interventions. There cannot be war in Afghanistan, or so we are told, because there is a UN mandate for the mission. Using Trittin's logic, one would also have to say that there was no Gulf War in 1991 because the action was based on a UN mandate. And it also follows that there was no Korean War, which was also fought by a UN force authorized by the UN Security Council.
Ironically, it took a military leader to initiate a debate in Germany about whether or not the incidents in Afghanistan ultimately constitute something akin to war. In September 2008, the head of the German Bundeswehr Association broke the taboo among military policy experts by stating that the ISAF mission was a "war against fanatical opponents who would stop at nothing." Nevertheless, the German defense minister continued insisting that it was not a war. At a funeral ceremony held in October 2008 for two soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Jung did talk of "fallen" soldiers, but, according to him, soldiers can now "fall" in both wars and "missions for peace."
If the German government were in fact to use the word "war," it would face far-reaching consequences. From a legal perspective, it could no longer plausibly argue that there is a distinction between the foreign military interventions and the scenario of national defense as described in the German constitution. In this case, the Bundestag could not be reelected and command of the Bundeswehr would pass from the defense minister to the chancellor. The gradually and laboriously constructed illusion of a Bundeswehr fighting a "robust" mission for peace would collapse.
The political debate on the Afghanistan mission is based on the following military policy rationale: We Germans do not fight wars. And even if we do, they are someone else's wars, or at least wars for a very good cause. This standpoint is certainly worthy of discussion, and one might even come to the conclusion that in some cases fighting a war is necessary and commendable. But nothing of the sort is happening. Almost no one dares to look beyond strange-sounding neologisms such as "robust mission" or "mission for peace." At the moment, the transformation of the Bundeswehr is in full swing. Weapons are being procured that will make it easier for future political leaders to send troops on missions of war, and political structures are being created that will make it more difficult for parliament and the public to stop such deployments. And none of this is secret.
Eric Chauvistré is the author of "Wir Gutkrieger: Warum die Bundeswehr im Ausland scheitern wird" ("We the Good Warriors: Why the Bundeswehr Will Fail Abroad"). This article is an excerpt.
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