25 Minutes with Merkel Germany's Top NATO General Shunned in Berlin
He's a four-star general and he heads up NATO operations in Afghanistan. But despite his expertise, Germany's top soldier Egon Ramms is virtually ignored by Berlin -- except for a meeting with Chancellor Merkel way back in 2007.
Egon Ramms used to be in charge of the vehicle fleet of the Bundeswehr, Germany's military, in Buxtehude. One day, a vehicle sank into a swamp during a training exercise. Ramms had the vehicle recovered, saved the chassis and spent months collecting replacement parts until it could eventually be fully repaired.
The 61-year-old is a patient man. He can wait as long as he needs to for things to come together, even if it's a very long time. Today, he is a four-star general and one of the three highest-ranking officers in the Bundeswehr. As the commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command in the Dutch city of Brunssum, he is also head of ISAF operations, the international military force in Afghanistan. But he's still waiting -- not for vehicle parts this time, rather, for a chance to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"I once spoke with Angela Merkel for 25 minutes, in 2007," he says. The sentence sounds nonchalant, making it seem as though it doesn't bother him. But he says it fairly often.
There isn't a soldier in the German military who knows Afghanistan better than Ramms does. As the operational head of ISAF, he has been to the Hindu Kush 16 times over the last three years. Still, it would seem that German politicians are not interested in what he has to say.
In February, the German parliament voted to extend the Bundeswehr's mandate in Afghanistan in addition to increasing Germany's contingent by 500 and keeping 350 more soldiers in reserve. The plan only calls for a slight deviation in strategy, which calls for German soldiers to collaborate more closely with their Afghan counterparts. It was a plan that Germany's government hammered out without consulting Ramms.
Ignored by the German Political Establishment
The war in Afghanistan is immensely unpopular in Germany, making General Ramms unwelcome in the country's political landscape. He is the embodiment of a mission in which Germans are killing and being killed. While most Germans would like to see their soldiers brought back home, most German politicians would like to see them stay where they are. But they try to avoid the issue when possible.
Ramms is a loyal soldier and would never openly criticize Merkel. Nevertheless, its not difficult to read between the lines. Like, for example, when Ramms speaks about US General Stanley McCrystal, the head of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan and Ramms' immediate subordinate.
"McCrystal speaks with President Obama every two weeks," Ramms says. Again, his voice is impassive. Again, he mentions that he sat down with Merkel in 2007 for 25 minutes.
Recently, the Defense Committee in German parliament launched an intense effort to have an audience with General McCrystal. But the parliamentarians have yet to invite Ramms for a chat. "It's rather interesting that no one in Berlin cares much about my expertise," he says. "Other countries seem to be much more interested in speaking with me."
Belgium's defense minister, for example, has met with Ramms four times. Former German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, for his part, met with his top Afghanistan expert only once between 2005 and 2009. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who assumed the portfolio in October 2009 after Merkel's re-election, never responded to a letter Ramms sent him offering his input. It was only in late January, right before the Afghanistan conference in London, that the two finally met -- for their one and only face-to-face thus far.
Germany's Misunderstanding of the Situation
Ramms has been a soldier for 41 years. He received his education while in the army, studying mechanical engineering. He is far from being bellicose, but he feels that the Germans are far too reluctant to fight in Afghanistan.
A few weeks ago, while Defense Minister Guttenberg and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle were in Germany bickering over whether to send more soldiers, Ramms was in Afghanistan. He was there for a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and to visit ISAF units. He was getting his boots dirty and expanding his already thorough knowledge of Afghanistan. But neither German politician called him for his opinion.
Between frequent cigarettes, Ramms provides clues to his viewpoint. "Germans just haven't understood the new American strategy," he says, for example. "Drawing a clear distinction between civil reconstruction and a beefed-up military deployment is false; they are both part of the same thing."
Ramms is the head of a mission that primarily involves Americans, Britons and Canadians in fierce combat with insurgents in the southern and western parts of Afghanistan. The German has to answer for any casualties they suffer, but he can't send any German soldiers there to help because the politicians back home won't let him. Instead, they want to keep their soldiers up north, where things are still much calmer.
According to one of Ramms' advisers, he finds it embarrassing that Germans refuse to let their soldiers fight in the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The general has said similar things in person, such as when he told people attending a security conference last summer that: "Before, Germans were still concerned with impact over safety, but now it's safety over impact." When asked whether 850 additional German soldiers would be enough for Afghanistan, he said: "In their dealings with Afghanistan, the German motto is: Wash my fur, but don't get me wet. (Eds note: Idiom analogous to: "Make me an omelet, but don't break any eggs.") If they maintain this stance, they will soon lose operational command in the north."
Ramms would love a chance to tell Chancellor Merkel how to improve things for the Germans in Afghanistan. He is waiting patiently. But he doesn't expect he'll get his chance anytime soon.