The Bundeswehr Abroad Don't Shoot, We're German!

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?

By Eric Chauvistré

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.

The German flags on every Bundeswehr vehicle in Afghanistan have a clear message for locals: We're not the ones dropping the bombs.

The very next day, the report is made available to all interested parties, not only German federal ministers and members of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, but journalists and the general public as well. Everyone can have a precise idea of the scale of the attacks. The air raids documented in these US airpower summaries are part of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) activities in Afghanistan, and they are routine.

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.


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