NATO Chaos Deepens in Afghanistan "The Germans Have to Learn How to Kill"

The situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate -- and NATO is squabbling about who is to blame. Some countries are tired of taking casualties while others, like the Germans in the north, refuse to get involved in the fighting.

By , Hans Hoyng, and Alexander Szandar

Everyone has a different way of catching up to the latest news at the beginning of a workday. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reads the press agency reports from the night before in his car on his way to the office and flips through German and international papers. His colleague, Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, has her staff bring her up to speed every morning at 7:45 a.m. En route to government headquarters, Chancellor Angela Merkel clicks her way through dozens of news reports the Federal Press Office has sent to her mobile phone.

When Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung walks into his office in the morning, a dark gray folder is already on his desk, containing a confidential, eight to nine-page report on the situation in those regions of the world where German troops are deployed.

Most of the report is worth little more than a cursory read. Things are relatively quiet in many of the regions where Jung's units are stationed. In last Tuesday's report on Uzbekistan, for example, German military officials wrote that there was "nothing significant worth reporting." There was also nothing going on in Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden and Gabon -- at least nothing momentous enough to interest the defense minister.

The situation in western Congo is described as "generally quiet and still stable," whereas the Congolese capital Kinshasa is considered "generally quiet, but not stable." Eastern Congo, on the other hand, is "not quiet and not stable," in the German military's assessment.

But Afghanistan features prominently in every situation report. Using the matter-of-fact language of bureaucrats, German military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan report incidents on an almost daily basis. Collectively their reports paint a picture of a looming disaster.

Shifting balance of power

According to last Tuesday's report, "at 1:45 p.m. local time on Nov. 13, 2006, a presumably vehicle-supported suicide bombing was committed against an ISAF patrol on the main Kandahar-Herat road through the Shindand district in Herat Province." Two Spanish soldiers were wounded in the incident. "This," according to the report, "would make it the third suicide attack in Herat Province in 2006" -- and the 96th in Afghanistan this year alone.

Most of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in the south.

Most of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in the south.

Following the murder of a local warlord by members of a rival clan, "the balance of power is currently shifting in Shindand," the analysts wrote in their assessment. Taliban or al-Qaida fighters, known in military jargon as "OMF," or Opposing Military Forces, were apparently involved once again. "Because the nature of the attack suggests OMF involvement," the report concludes, "it is possible that they are taking advantage of the current power vacuum in Shindand and the proximity to the southern fields of operation to become established structurally in the region."

The military leadership sends the minister almost daily reports on clashes between Taliban units and the international protective force ISAF and American counterterrorism units. According to a report filed in late October, a US soldier was killed in a "battle lasting several hours" in Zabul Province. "OMF dominates the province in places where there is little or only intermittent Afghan government or international presence."

Four days earlier, "various combat incidents" were reported in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan. There were, according to the report, "signs of another military buildup. Artillery and air sorties are often the only means of avoiding losses of our own forces, although they also carry the fundamental risk of causing collateral damage. This undermines the civilian population's confidence in ISAF's reconstruction and stabilization efforts."

Aside from the details of such incidents, there are two things the reports reveal to the minister on a daily basis. The first is that Afghanistan is experiencing its worst wave of violence since the Taliban regime was toppled five years ago. NATO, which sees itself as the world's most powerful military alliance, faces the real possibility of political and possibly even military defeat in its bloody war of attrition with the Taliban. Second, German soldiers are noticeably absent from the increasingly brutal fighting in the country.

More volatile south

While Canadian, Dutch, British and American troops are waging war in southern Afghanistan, the Germans have established themselves in the country's relatively peaceful north. Their objective there is to address the task of reconstruction in the shattered country -- acting, in essence, as armed social workers with the authority of village cops.

It is a division of labor that will be politically difficult to sustain much longer. Berlin's allies are beginning to demand that the Germans join them at the front. Berlin, for its part, has been just as adamant in opposing any change to the status quo. Last week three members of the cabinet -- the chancellor, the foreign minister and the defense minister -- reiterated the Merkel Administration's opposition to deploying German troops in Afghanistan's more volatile south.

"On this matter we will remain steadfast," Defense Minister Jung said. "We do not believe that our mandate should change," said Merkel. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier added: "I see no point in our frantically pulling personnel and troops from the north and redeploying them to someplace in the south."

But contrary to what the politicians are saying, planners at the defense ministry have long been analyzing models under which up to two combat battalions, with combined manpower of about 1,000 troops, could be deployed to reinforce Germany's struggling allies in the south. The allies will discuss the issue at next week's NATO summit in the Latvian capital Riga, and the deployment could well be decided by the time the NATO council meets next spring. If the alliance, in an effort to head off defeat at the hands of the Taliban, calls on all its members to send additional troops, Berlin will hardly be able to avoid being part of the campaign.

For the Germans, it would be a historic moment. For the six decades following World War II, pacifism has become a major part of their identity. And even if the country has sent troops to a number of hotspots recently, the Bundeswehr has become directly involved in only a handful of combat operations.

Germans were hesitant to accept rearmament in the 1950s. And since the end of the Cold War, they have only gradually become accustomed to the idea that their new role in the world will also require the periodic deployment of German soldiers abroad. Rhetorically, at least, administrations from those of former Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder to the current Merkel government have consistently pandered to their voters' aversion to all things military. And despite gradually expanding the Bundeswehr's range of operations, they have consistently avoided using the term "combat deployment." The voting public was more likely to accept phrases like "peacekeeping mission" and "stabilization force," and if the situation ever threatened to become more serious, the term "robust mandate" was always an option.

Social workers in military fatigues

The defense ministry still refuses to recognize the 64 Bundeswehr soldiers who have lost their lives on foreign missions to date as "war dead." In addition to saving the government the cost of permanently maintaining the graves of soldiers classified as casualties of war, it enables the military to avoid using words like "war," "death" and "foreign mission" in the same context.

The camouflage has paid off. According to opinion polls, the Bundeswehr, along with the Federal Constitutional Court and the police force, have enjoyed the highest levels of public confidence of all public institutions -- possibly because many see the military essentially as an armed relief organization.

German soldiers have carried sandbags in flooded cities like Dresden, helped Serbian mothers in Kosovo and built schools in Afghanistan. They serve as everything from medics to social workers, but what they are not, at least in the public conscience, are fighters trained to kill other human beings -- and who could possibly be killed in the process. They are content to let others do the killing and dying while they travel the world as social workers dressed in military fatigues.

But now, after decades of displaying willingness to accept that Germany needed time to return to normalcy, Germany's NATO partners are becoming impatient. Their fear of a rebirth of German militarism has given way to a need for more German involvement -- and the days of German postwar pacifism could well be numbered.

The upshot is that Berlin may be entering the final phase of its return to the international stage, one in which German soldiers could soon embark on combat missions where they will shoot and be shot at. The question now is whether Germany is ready -- emotionally, politically and militarily -- for war.


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