Interview with German Defense Minister Jung 'German Tornados Will Help to Limit Collateral Damage'

NATO has launched a major new offensive in Afghanistan and Berlin is sending its Tornado reconnaissance jets to the volatile south. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung discusses the new deployment, collateral damage and the debate over the US missile shield planned in Eastern Europe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Minister, on Tuesday, NATO began a spring offensive in Afghanistan. Is this the last opportunity to restore peace in the country?

German defense minister Jung: "There is no spring offensive."

German defense minister Jung: "There is no spring offensive."

Franz-Josef Jung: There is no NATO spring offensive. The fact is that we've been conducting a mission together with Afghan troops and police for quite some time now. The operation covers a ring from Kandahar to Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif to Herat. The Afghan government has now asked for additional support in the Helmand province. That's why we have integrated "Operation Achilles" into our previous efforts. The goal is to prevent the Taliban from destroying a dam that has just been built for the Afghan people. That demonstrates just how intrinsically intertwined security and reconstruction can be.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The mission comprises 4,500 NATO troops and 1,000 Afghan soldiers, and ISAF (the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force) is calling the operation its biggest offensive ever.

Jung: It is true that NATO has increased the number of troops. We want to have our defenses prepared in case the Taliban launch a spring offensive. It's all about ensuring safety.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The coming months will be decisive. If the offensive doesn't succeed, increased pressure will be placed on the Germans to become more active in southern Afghanistan. Are you prepared to deal with a request for German ground troops?

Jung: I've always said that we should do our job in the north because that's our area of responsibility. Should our partners get into trouble in other regions, we'll help them out. With the exception of the Tornado reconnaissance jets, there are currently no requests for additional military support from Germany's army, the Bundeswehr.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What if the situation gets worse? Is there any possibility that the Bundeswehr could head to the south in the future?

Jung: As you can well understand, I am unwilling to speculate in any way. The alliance will assess how dangerous the announced Taliban offensive will be. There's a lot of propaganda at play. But the Bundeswehr has a clear mandate, which was confirmed by the NATO general secretary last week. There will be no shifting of our troops from north to south. In fact, our soldiers are needed in the north more than ever now: There, too, the number of attacks has grown.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: NATO partners have complained about Germany's caveats in Afghanistan. In Canada, there have been allegations that Berlin has lacked commitment to the alliance.

Jung: I haven't heard this allegation from a single NATO defense minister nor from my Canadian colleagues. Quite on the contrary: Everybody is grateful for our contribution.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The German parliament, the Bundestag, on Friday approved a plan to deploy six Tornado jets, which are also supposed to fly in volatile southern Afghanistan. Your predecessor Peter Struck called it a combat deployment, but you have avoided using this terminology.

Jung: Tornados have two capabilities: reconnaissance and attack. But this is a reconnaissance mission. The bottom line is this: Every mission entails a life-threatening risk and there can also be situations where soldiers have to fight. Of course, if our troops are being attacked -- by a rocket-propelled grenade, for example -- they must defend themselves.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why are you tiptoeing around the term combat deployment? Are you worried about opposition in the Bundestag or from the chancellor?

Jung: I'm not tiptoeing around the terminology. I just want to avoid misunderstandings. We're on a mission for peace, that's the message.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ISAF forces have been present in Afghanistan in order to provide stability in the country since 2001. Today the Taliban are regaining strength, opium production is increasing and the number of suicide attacks is rising. What has gone wrong?

Jung: I'm particularly worried about public perception. There is an impression that progress in Afghanistan has stalled, but the reality is different. The Taliban are no longer in power, the country has a constitution, an elected parliament and a democratic government. Over 7 million children are back at school and 80 percent of the population is provided with basic medial care. We're on the right track.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: However, you can't really claim that Afghanistan is stabile. When will you be in the position to say: mission accomplished?

Jung: It's difficult to make a prediction but the goal is clear. The Afghan government has to be able to ensure the safety of the country by itself. At the London conference last year, a timeframe of five years was drawn up, during which time we want to achieve significant progress.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nonetheless, critics argue that the foreign troops lack a clear plan. They only do what they want to do: Some build streets or schools, others chase the terrorists.

Jung: We have to combine security and reconstruction. Military and civil forces have improved their coordination in recent months. It is important that the people feel that we are there as liberators.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the danger looms of losing that perception among the Afghan people. Increasingly, they appear to see the foreign troops as occupiers -- especially in situations where there have been the kind of civilian casualties we have seen in recent days.

Jung: We have to do everything to prevent casualties among the civil population. Otherwise, there is a danger that the public mood will sooner or later become hostile towards the security troops. The contribution made with our Tornados will help to limit collateral damage. But establishing contact with the people is even more important: By talking with Afghans and regional decision-makers in Mazar-e-Scharif, in Kunduz and Feyzabad, we show the people that we are taking the initiative. Such efforts need to be intensified even further in the east and the south.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Taliban have a clear enemy and clear command structures. The NATO alliance, on the other hand, is struggling with two mandates: The anti-terror Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF mission. Should the international community reconsider the division of the two?

Jung: No, we are in now way struggling with two mandates. The purpose of "Operation Enduring Freedom" is also to ensure the safety of the ISAF troops. There is a clear division between the two mandates but they share the same responsibility. ISAF also has a security function, which is becoming especially important in the south. That's where 90 percent of attacks take place.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Photographs that emerged last autumn showing German soldiers posing with skulls sparked a serious debate about the mental health of Bundeswehr troops. Do these problems remain today?

Jung: No. We have made some adjustments within the (Bundeswehr's) internal leadership as a result of the scandal. And we now put greater emphasis on intercultural competencies when we train our troops. It makes a difference if our soldiers are fighting in Congo or Afghanistan. I believe our soldiers are very committed and that they're very skilled in dealing with the Afghan people -- and that also helps to improve Germany's reputation. The government in Kabul has confirmed my impression.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Complaints about inadequate equipment come up time and again. Has the situation gotten so bad that the Bundeswehr is forced to get spare parts for its helicopters straight from the scrapyard?

Jung: Not everything you read in the papers is true. Of course we try to equip our troops as optimally as we can. That's why we've been only patrolling in armored vehicles for a year. I've always said: I won't send troops on a mission if they're not ideally equipped. If I don't have the financial means for that, then I won't do it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you actually have sufficient financial means?

Jung: Obviously the Bundeswehr would benefit from greater financial support for the upcoming year 2008. Last year, we had additional missions in Congo and the UNIFIL mission (along the coast) of Lebanon. Now that the Bundestag has approved (the mandate), our Tornados will soon be flying over Afghanistan. All of these are additional commitments for which I need additional money.

Graphic: Backyard Tensions

Graphic: Backyard Tensions

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There's a second issue that has been stirring up the international community. The USA wants to install a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to defend itself against potential possible missile strikes from Iran and North Korea. Russia feels threatened -- rightly so?

Jung: I try to relate with Moscow. Russia clearly seems to view the US system as a threat. However, it is not a threat, but rather serves a protective function for Europe and the USA. We need to start intensive and detailed discussions with the Russians.

SPIEGEL ONLINE:How do you want to gain the Russians' trust?

Jung: It would be wise to integrate the defense system into NATO and use the framework of the NATO-Russia Council to clear up the Russians' concerns. We share a common security interest with Russia, and we have noticed that repeatedly in the nuclear conflict with Iran.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The planning stages of this project are what have most upset the Russians. The European Union likes to refer to its collective foreign and security politics but the Poles and Czechs discussed this arms project of major proportions bilaterally with the Americans. Are we on the verge of a new divide between Eastern and Western Europe?

Jung: Poland and the Czech Republic are and will remain sovereign states. Chief EU diplomat Javier Solana has said that explicitly. Nonetheless, the issue should be addressed within the whole (EU) community.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are Germany's interests?

Graphic: How the missile defense system works

Graphic: How the missile defense system works

Jung: We also have a security interest. Within NATO's framework we want to make the efforts necessary to prevent a relapse into the Cold War.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will the missile shield make Germany more or less secure?

Jung: More secure.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has criticized the USA for its approach. Conservative foreign policy experts in Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats, have accused Steinmeier of harboring anti-Americanism.

Jung: The German government has agreed to represent a common position on this issue.

The interview was conducted by Carsten Volkery and Philipp Wittrock

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