Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Germans at the Front

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

“It couldn’t have come worse. It is mid-August 2009. American pilots bomb an Afghan village, many women and children die. The target for the attack was provided by the Germans.” [The German parliament is currently in the decision-making process about sending AWACS surveillance planes to Afghanistan.]

“Two days later, three German Bundeswehr soldiers publicly brag about their ‘kill quotas’ in their anti-Taleban operations. At the same day, al-Qaeda abducts five German engineers in Algeria and demands the instant withdrawal of the Bundeswehr from Afghanistan. In that country, twelve Germans die in a fire-fight near Kunduz on 25 August. ‘Why do we pay that blood toll?’ titles an influential broadsheet. One week later, terrorists explode three bombs at Frankfort main railway station. Germany is close to a state of emergency. Again, Islamists demand a German withdrawal from the Hindukush. Three weeks remain before the general elections. 85 per cent of Germans support an end of the Bundeswehr mission.”
“It won’t come as bad as this” reads the next sentence of this scenariopublished in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on 21 June 2009.

Indeed. Two days later, a much smaller incident happened. Without all the al-Qaeda ingredients etc. But it already has sparked a fierce discussion which has the potential to – if not decide – strongly influence the outcome of the German elections on 27 September and that, therefore, many German politicians fear and want to avoid.

On 23 June, a Bundeswehr patrol on its way back to base in Kunduz in North-Eastern Afghanistan is ambushed by insurgents. Three soldiers die. Not through direct fire. Their armoured personnel carrier drives backwards, slips down a slope and lands in a ditch filled with water. Two of the soldiers drown. A third one dies on the way to the hospital.

One of the major lines in the ongoing discussion is a question that looks rather academic to outsiders: Is that a war in Afghanistan? Does the Bundeswehr participate in it? Does it wage a war there?

Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a Christian Democrat, says ‘No’.

“It would be wrong to put it like this.”

He adds that Germans are not an “occupying force” in Afghanistan and that it would be an affront to Bundeswehr soldiers to put them “on one level with terrorists and criminals”.

Winfried Nachtwei, security policy and Afghanistan expert of the Green Bundestag faction finds it ‘wantonly negligent’ to generalise.

“There is no fitting word for the situation in Afghanistan. It is a mixture of layers of different conflict situations: starting from guerrilla war in some districts to serious crime while there are [economic] boom regions.”

One of Jung’s predecessors, the Social Democrat Peter Struck, who while still in office coined the phrase that “Germany’s freedom is defended at the Hindukush”, demanded that the government must clearly tell the people that the Bundeswehr “is in a war, in a military confrontation with terrorism . . . and the Taleban“ and that German soldiers and insurgents might be killed in it.

This is echoed by Reinhold Robbe the Armed Forces commissioner of the Bundestag, a non-parliamentarian whose position is to advocate German soldiers’ interests:

“I just have been to Afghanistan, and the soldiers have made clear to me, some in a very emotional way: Mr. Robbe, currently there are no wells drilled and also no schools opened – currently, here is war.”

My own argument, in short, when asked recently during a call-in progamme on a Cologne-based radio station was as follows: Yes, of course, there is a war in Afghanistan. Kunduz is not an island, and that makes Germany – whether its politicians want it or not – part of it. They are part of NATO, ISAF and all that. But, as MP Nachtwei says, you have to differentiate between the situations in different areas. With some 30 incidents this year, Kunduz might look like a rest & recreation area from the viewpoint of a US, British, Canadian or Dutch soldier. Kunduz is not Helmand but the situation is increasingly deteriorating. Also Helmand initially looked to some as if they could get out there “with no shots fired”.

Willi Germund in Frankfurter Rundschau writes:

“One year ago, the Taleban leadership had decided to make the North of Afghanistan a focus of their operations. On the way to the Tajikistan border, around Kunduz and in Baghlan this plan has become reality.”

Reportedly, fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Chechens are involved in the recent attacks in Kunduz.

In order to understand who says what in that pre-election debate, a glance into German politics might be necessary.

First, over the past years a ‘very Grand coalition’ of Bundestag parties has defended the Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan. (We have a so-called ‘Grand coalition’ of Christian and Social Democrats in government, CDU and SPD.) This also includes most opposition parties, the (neo-)liberal Free Democrats and most of the Greens. The Bundestag even has voted to delay the annual renewal of the Bundeswehr Afghanistan mandate to a post-election date, in an attempt to keep the issue out of the campaign.

But that won’t work. The Left party is dead against the Afghanistan mission and hopes to turn that into votes. Its posters for the recent European Parliament elections simply read: “Raus aus Afghanistan” (Out of Afghanistan). They remember that the Social Democrats in 2002 surprisingly had returned to power after having made their rejection of a German military engagement in Iraq their central campaign issue. Today, it is the Social Democrats who fear to lose voters to the Left if the Afghan issue comes up.

The Left even knocked one of their most recognised foreign policy experts from their Euro election list – André Brie, hitherto Afghanistan rapporteur of the house in Strasbourg. He was known for not being in total conformity with the party line on the very subject – he had travelled to Afghanistan too often to do so.

The Christian Democrats and particularly their leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, are even cleverer. She has avoided making Afghanistan a personal priority and even dealing publicly with it too often. Instead, she leaves the ungrateful issue to her smaller coalition partner SPD whose leader, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at the same time is the SPD candidate for chancellorship. It seems that Ms. Merkel, a matter-of-factly politician with a background in science, hopes that the Left can help her making her position even stronger vis-à-vis their coalition partner.

The Taleban and their advisors have shown before that they are aware of European debates. It wouldn’t be the first time that a country before elections would be targeted. The last time it happened, it was Spain when bombers linked to al-Qaeda blew up some commuter trains and created a horrible bloodbath. It seems that the Taleban go another way: They target Germans in their country.

A second important political factor that shapes German discussions about Afghanistan and in general about Bundeswehr operations abroad is that for many here the call ‘Germans to the front’ is still a very touchy issue. I know people from Eastern European countries whose parents – who had seen German soldiers’ boots on their ‘ground’ – still fret when their children tell them that they had met a German (me) for drinks.

It emerges now that German politicians have not told their voters the full truth about why they had decided to send troops to Afghanistan. In 2001, Afghanistan had looked like cakewalk.

When the Taleban regime collapsed, there was big enthusiasm about bringing peace and democracy and reconstruction to Afghanistan – a good opportunity for Germany, with the Berlin wall down ten years earlier, to make its way back to become a ‘normal’ country again, an international player, out-of-area missions included. That does not mean that Germans wanted to go there to wage a war. Hence all the talk about Bundeswehr soldiers as ‘aid workers in uniform’. It took German politicians too long to realise that things were not going well in Afghanistan. With all the consequences and no political will to admit it.

This leads to what mildly could be described as a lack of transparency. When Germund attempted to speak to soldiers who were on the attacked patrol in Kunduz he wasn’t allowed and referred to the Ministry of Defence’s media centre in Germany where no one picked up the phone

That state of denial is not limited to politicians. Some days ago, I heard someone from a government-owned developmental implementation agency speak before an invitation-only crowd in Berlin. He explained how many people it had on the ground in Northern Afghanistan – but no words about that its expat staff in Kunduz is confined to its offices and that the Taleban park their motorcycles in one of its abandoned project compounds.

To admit that would also put a question mark behind the much-heralded concept of civil-military cooperation. It is less and less working – see the soldiers remark to Mr. Robbe quoted above: “currently there are no wells drilled and also no schools opened”. The military side more and more dominates the civilian side. In fact, the use of developmental projects as a counter-insurgency technique jeopardises the long-term work of developmental NGOs many of which have established long-lasting relations with local populations. Not only in Kunduz.

It is high time to face the realities: That under the current circumstances, PRTs are even more about security than about reconstruction. That the NGOs work in a separate sphere, but still need to be funded. That the security part of the soldiers’ work is dangerous and might lead to more victims. That it, at the same time, is not something they need to be ashamed of because most Afghans still want their help. Most of them do not want a return of the Taleban although they reject some of the methods used in fighting them because they have resulted in far too many civilian casualties. (It doesn’t help to compare those figures with the civilian casualty rate caused by the Taleban – no one expects from them that they behave like democrats.) That, at least, the Germans have so far avoided with very few exceptions.

What is needed is steadfastness, patience and a better understanding of Afghans. This you don’t get behind barbed wire. Ways have to be explored how the soldiers can meet the very people they are there to support. They usually don’t – and as a result they assume that everyone ‘outside’ is a potential Taleb or suicide bomber. (And Afghans are treated like this when they want to enter any PRT – if they still dare to do so for increasing fear of Taleban punishment after they come home afterwards.) Only better mutual understanding can stem the tide of demands for a hasty “exit strategy” that would let behind many problems unsolved.

When we talk about an exit strategy, it should be made clear that we talk about an exit of foreign soldiers only – and only at a time when the Afghan security forces can do their job properly. At the same time, we have to make clear that that does not mean the end of our support for institution and infrastructure building and for long-term development assistance.

I hope we can discuss all this although it is election time.

From Berlin with Love,


Germany International US War