German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung's trip to Afghanistan could have been one grand photo op. Picture him joining his soldiers to drink mulled wine, as Germans are fond of doing before Christmas. Or think of the elaborately decorated Christmas trees in the headquarters of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on Great Massoud Road in central Kabul. But German soldiers will be celebrating Christmas this year without their defense minister.
Jung cancelled his trip to Afghanistan on Monday. The weather there was so bad that the politician's twin-engine Transall transport aircraft wouldn't have been able to fly over the 5,000 meter (16,404 feet) mountains north of Kabul, the Defense Ministry in Berlin reported.
But that was only half the story. The other half is that security experts feared for their boss' life. The daily status reports from the armed forces' operational headquarters indicate an unacceptably high threat for the minister to travel.
The situation in Kabul is more dangerous than it has been for a long time. Taliban fighters have gotten a foothold into the city's suburbs and are gradually infiltrating the Afghan capital from there. The city's southern districts have become a "gateway" for suicide attackers and armed fighters, according to a confidential report issued to Jung. Together, those facts paint a "picture of a staging and deployment area in the vicinity of the capital," that could impact "negatively on the security situation."
Reports from the conflict-riddled south of the battered country are even grimmer. There, NATO units from Canada, Britain, the United States, Denmark and Holland have been engaged in bloody skirmishes with Taliban troops and their accomplices for months. The hope that there would be a respite from fighting during the winter "has not been fulfilled," Jung's parliamentary state secretary, Christian Schmidt, recently had to concede before the German parliament's defense committee.
For German politicians responsible for foreign policy and security issues, it is clear what this means. Germany's NATO allies will increase the pressure on them to support their struggling partners in southern Afghanistan. In a strictly confidential dispatch, officials at NATO headquarters Mons, Belgium, requested the deployment of German Tornado surveillance jets for use in "Falcon's Summit," a major combat operation that has just begun in southern Afghanistan.
NATO in need
In a letter to the head of Germany's armed forces, Inspector General of the Bundeswehr Wolfgang Schneiderhan, British General Sir John Reith explained that NATO now has an urgent "need" for manned German surveillance aircraft. Reith, who is NATO's Deputy Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and Afghanistan, wrote that the German military is known to have Tornado jets at its disposal. He has asked Germany to inform NATO by mid-January if and when the jets will be made available.
Until now, the German government has expanded its military commitments in Afghanistan in a series of small steps. But the pace is speeding up. First came occasional transport flights in the hard-fought south of the country. Then a few signals specialists were dispatched to Kandahar. Now it's Tornado surveillance jets, equipped with cameras -- and cannons. The Germans are allowing themselves to get deeper and deeper involved in the Afghanistan conflict, and there is no end in sight. Between Christmas and New Year, US C-17 transport planes will unload heavy German Marder tanks at the German military's central headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif.
And the Germans will also have to agree to the request for the Tornados. There is no doubt about that in the German Chancellery, at the Defense Ministry or at the Foreign Ministry. The complaints from Germany's NATO allies during the past weeks about the German armed forces, who are seen as having installed themselves in the relatively quiet north of Afghanistan, leaving the fighting to their allies, had grown too loud.
The German government is well aware there is a fundamental political difference between stationing troops in the north to stabilize the situation there and deploying Tornados in the conflict-riddled south. Nevertheless, the government in Berlin would prefer to sweep these differences under the rug. Merkel's cabinet quickly checked the existing parliamentary mandate to see if it covered this expansion of the country's mission in Afghanistan -- in order to approve the Tornados' deployment as quietly as possible.
Berlin has dutifully rebuffed accusations of cowardice from Germany's allies during the last few months. In public, Merkel played the role of an "iron chancellor" who would resist the pressure from Germany's NATO allies: "Our place is in the north," she said.
Under the existing mandate -- which was renewed for one year in September by Germany's parliament, the Bundestag -- German troops would keep the peace in northern Afghanistan as its agreement with NATO stipulates. "Nothing will be changed" Merkel declared at the time. Defense Minister Jung seconded her, insisting Germany would "stand firm" on that point.
Venturing into dangerous territory
Internally, it was clear this position couldn't be maintained in the longterm. Step by step, the government began venturing into dangerous territory. Shortly before the NATO summit in Riga, Berlin sent 23 signals specialists to Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, to assist the British troops stationed there -- and curb the ire of Germany's NATO allies. "Without the Germans, the British would have been in a fix," one NATO general admitted. New radio equipment for the British forces had not been delivered in time.
In addition, the German government secretly drew up an offer of Tornados that Merkel would have presented at the NATO summit in Riga summit if necessary. But US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair didn't want to spoil the summit's harmonious atmosphere and refrained from putting pressure on their German counterpart, and Merkel didn't have to play her card.
Immediately after the summit in the Latvian capital, the German government's spokespeople spread the news that the ISAF commander in Kabul could soon have more German troops at his disposal than before. Only about two-thirds of the 3,000 German soldiers stationed in Afghanistan are presently under the command of the British general. The others are under German national command, including those responsible for operating the highly-prized Luna reconnaissance drones and the around 250 troops of the signals unit, who are specialized in intercepting enemy communications.
Under their Bundestag mandate, German troops are only allowed to be deployed to other regions of Afghanistan in emergency situations -- only when "indispensable to the success of the overall ISAF mission" and for a "limited" duration and scope. But will those rules still apply if German jets are stationed in Afghanistan?
Officials at Germany's Defense Ministry believe they will. Military officials were quick to resurrect old action plans when the NATO request arrived. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, put together a "small package" of six Tornados and 250 ground troops that could be stationed in Kabul or Mazar-e-Sharif by late spring.
Merkel's government has determined that the request for Tornados could be met even without reaching the Bundestag mandate's upper limit of a contingent of 3,000 troops. By spring, about 250 soldiers currently working to expand the Mazar-e-Sharif airport and dismantling superfluous facilities in Kabul will no longer be needed in Afghanistan.
Flights by individual reconnaissance planes in the south would be completely possible according to the letter of the Bundestag's mandate, since the extent and duration of such operations would be limited, Jung's legal advisors believe. However they are ignoring the fact that the parliamentary mandate speaks explicitly of a peacekeeping force deployed for purposes of "stabilization" and "supporting" the Afghan government. The mandate does not address combat operations in the context of anti-terrorism missions such as Enduring Freedom.
Several high-ranking military officials are aware of the problem and have brought it to the attention of the commanders. But the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the Chancellery have joined forces and are resolved to avoid the debate over a possible new mandate at all costs. They have already carefully tested the waters in parliament. Defense Minister Jung took his predecessor Peter Struck aside last Thursday following a Bundestag debate on another issue. Jung asked Struck whether a new mandate was necessary or desirable for the deployment of Tornados in Afghanistan -- or if it would be enough simply to inform the chairmen of the defense and foreign policy committees, in addition to the leaders of the various parliamentary factions? Struck tried to reassure the defense minister. No, he didn't think a new mandate was absolutely necessary, was what people were saying in the faction after the meeting. It would be enough to inform the experts in parliament and the parliamentary party leaders.
Germany's government coalition of left-leaning Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats seems firmly resolved to play down the seriousness of the Tornado issue. But they also know that it's not a question of German planes taking harmless photographs of the Afghan landscape. The pilots would be charged with identifying targets for attack. True, it normally takes about 45 minutes for the photographs to be evaluated after the plane has landed at its home base -- and it's only then that the pictures are handed over to the command posts of combat troops. But Tornados don't normally fly their missions alone. They tend to be accompanied by bombers -- and the Tornado pilots can communicate a newly identified target to the bomber pilots by radio at any time. It's called a "Recce Attack Interface" in military jargon.
From surveillance to combat
German Tornado jets were already deployed in combat situations about eight years ago -- in order to "avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the Kosovo conflict," as the Bundestag resolution, passed by a large majority, stated then. It was the first time that German troops were deployed in combat since World War II. This time the Tornados are meant to fly as reconnaissance planes -- but that can of course be changed at any time.
The German military journal Soldat und Technik notes, not without a certain pride, that the planes can be converted into bombers again in no time. A few hours are all it takes to replace camera-equipped containers with bombs. The jets fly at an altitude of between 60 and 2,600 meters (197 and 8,530 feet). Their infrared sensors are capable of detecting even freshly dug graves at the edge of a forest -- a technological capability sometimes utilized in police investigations within Germany.
There is a shortage of reconnaissance planes among the NATO allies, whose wish list for Afghanistan also includes unmanned spy planes. But there's no lack of bombers, as the "Air Power Summary" which the US Air Force publishes openly on the Internet every day clearly shows.
US, British, French and Dutch bombers fly 30 to 50 sorties in the battle zones of southern and eastern Afghanistan every day. They fire armor-shattering uranium munitions from their cannons and drop laser-guided precision bombs on the farms where the Taliban take refuge. But they also drop so-called "general purpose bombs" -- regular explosives of the kind commonly used for carpet bombing during World War II and in Vietnam.
Without this massive air support, the ground troops might not be able to stand up against the intense attacks of the militarily highly organized Taliban. "One bomb too many was already dropped there," says a German NATO general. According to Pentagon statistics, the US Air Force has dropped more bombs over Afghanistan during the past six months than during the entire first three years of its campaign against the Taliban.
And civilians keep getting killed -- "collateral damage" that is creating the perception in Afghanistan that NATO troops are occupiers rather than liberators, classified German military situation reports warn.
When he recently stood before parliament in Kabul, tears streamed down Afghan President Hamid Karzai's face as he told the story of a girl whose family was wiped out during a bombing operation in the south of the country. "We can't stop the terrorists from leaving Pakistan, and we can't stop the coalition troops from bombing them, and that's why all our children are dying," he said.
Neither Afghanistan nor India could provide the girl with the treatment she needed, so Karzai appealed to the Germans for help. The majority of Afghans still perceive the Germans as friends and mediators. President Karzai would probably have liked nothing better than to hand the child directly to German Defense Minister Jung.
But now that Jung has cancelled his visit, the girl is to be brought to Germany on a regular flight -- just in time for German pilots to provide the NATO bombers with new targets.