No warnings, just knock, then enter -- and simply listen in. At least, that is how you do it, if you happen to be Reinhold Robbe, the German parliament's military commissioner. Over the past five years, Robbe has made many spontaneous visits to German barracks where he is able to listen freely to reports from German soldiers, both male and female. Reports about their experiences while in service, as well as their plans and their worries.
And this is what he was doing on Jan. 18. Robbe traveled to Seedorf, a municipality in his home state of Lower-Saxony, and paid a visit to the paratroopers stationed there. The politician -- who is a member of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) and will give up his post as commissioner in May -- spent several hours talking to soldiers there, just as they were preparing to be shipped out to Afghanistan a few days later.
Paratroopers Felt Unprepared for Mission
They had nothing positive to report. Instead they spoke of a lack of preparation -- the armored vehicles they were expected to use in Afghanistan, for example, had not been made available during their training. Robbe left angered by the reports and proptly filed yet another written complaint with Germany's Defense Ministry.
Six weeks later, one of the soldiers Robbe had spoken to at Seedorf was dead. The Taliban had lured him and two others into an ambush near Kunduz. "This didn't just upset me, it also made me very angry," Robbe said. "For years I have been complaining about problems with the training. But now I feel like I am a lone voice in the desert."
According to the latest information, on Good Friday the Taliban ambushed a German Bundeswehr patrol from several sides. The German soldiers had been scouting for mines in the locality of Isa Khel in the Chahar Dara district, in Kunduz province. Two German soldiers were hit by bullets and killed. A little later a third soldier was killed when, while looking for hidden explosive devices, he got out of a Dingo armored vehicle and set off a bomb planted on the road. He had reportedly been searching for explosives with a detector and accidentally set off a mine.
Could the deaths have been a result of the insufficient training the Seedorf soldiers were talking about?
According to a German armed forces spokesperson, there is knowledge inside the Bundeswehr about the lack of training vehicles, but there does not appear to be a solution in sight yet. Questioned by SPIEGEL ONLINE, a spokesperson confirmed that "there still aren't enough vehicles available for paratrooper training." The spokesperson said it would be better if vehicles were procured for training, but conceded he could not say when that might happen.
No Time for 'Mission Preparation Time'
Nevertheless, the spokesman continued, the paratroopers still have the opportunity to train with the vehicles shortly before the start of their mission. The rest of their training takes place in Afghanistan during what was known as "mission preparation time," the duration of which is around four weeks. In the case of the affected unit, this training phase didn't take place -- at least most of it. Both paratrooper companies -- 373 and 313 from Seedorf -- got involved in fire fights that lasted several hours outside of their camps shortly after their arrival in Afghanistan.
Officials at the German Armed Forces Association, which represents the interests of active and former soldiers as well as their families, have also acknowledged the training deficiencies. "The fact that people can only get limited access in training to the actual vehicles is a common problem in training, since the actual vehicles are generally deployed (on missions)," said Wolfgang Schmelzer, the group's deputy chief. But the master chief petty officer does not believe that the lack of training in the vehicles played any significant role in the Good Friday losses. "A situation like that tragic ambush cannot be prevented in Afghanistan," he said. "Nevertheless, we need to ensure that, at the very least, soldiers are optimally equipped -- and that is not the case at the moment."
Politician's Call to Bring in the Big Tanks
The plea from his association: "We ask that the politicians put more resources into this." It's a point that both Schmelzer and SPD man Robbe both agree on. "The soldiers have a right to optimal protection," said Robbe. And he even went a step further, saying that: "If the Americans were not there with their helicopters, then we would not be able to conduct the mission this way."
Hellmut Königshaus of the business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) will replace Robbe in the job of military commissioner next month. He has even called for heavy tanks to be sent in to protect the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan. "The Bundeswehr must get one of the Leopard 2 battle tanks, that are sitting in depots in Germany, to Kunduz," Königshaus told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. The politician's pithy observation: "Anyone who looks down the barrel of a Leopard 2 would think twice about attacking a German patrol."
But within the Bundeswehr, Königshaus' idea has no lack of critics. An army spokesperson explained to SPIEGEL ONLINE that the Leopard 2 was "not deployable due to the geographic characteristics of Afghanistan." According to the Bundeswehr, the large tanks are not suitable for patrolling through the narrow alleyways of villages in the mission area. Additionally, most of the bridges there can only carry vehicles weighing up to 60 tons. The combat weight of the Leopard 2 is just over that.
Guttenberg's New Style
"Deploying the Leopard in Afghanistan would clearly give the wrong signal to the people there," an army spokesperson told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We would appear to be occupying forces, invading the country rather than complying with our duty to protect its people." A symbol like this "is not compatible with the Bundeswehr's political assignment," he argued.
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has also moved to address criticisms of the lack of training and equipment. Internally and publicly, the politician -- a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -- has made clear he wants to expedite an investigation into possible shortcomings. At a press conference held over the weekend, the defense minister announced that a thorough investigation would be conducted into Friday's deadly ambush.
He's attempting a new management style: Guttenberg no longer wants to tolerate the sort of plodding perseverance demonstrated by his predecessors in the German Defense Ministry, who brushed off all criticisms whether they came from inside or outside his offices. And even if he, like most of the active duty military officials in the field, considers calls for heavier weaponry or more air attacks to be excessive, he nevertheless patiently explained over the weekend why none of these measures could have helped in the Good Friday attacks.
When it comes to military training, Defense Ministry sources say that Guttenberg is prepared for swift improvements. His line on this is that every opportunity to make things safer should be utilized. Straight after returning from his interrupted Easter holiday, Guttenberg wanted to be informed in detail about Friday's events. He met with the inspector general of the Bundeswehr and the head of the Afghanistan mission, watched videos recorded by drones and had the circumstances of the attack explained to him, step by step.
And that is exactly what the Bundestag's departing military commissioner, Robbe, would like to see. Speaking about his experiences during the last five years, he said: "These problems are not taken as seriously at the top of the Bundeswehr as they should be."