German Organized Labor Meets Afghani Working Conditions

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan . . . yes, you remember that we also fought a war there, in late 2001 against the Taliban, mainly because they were sheltering Osama bin-Laden and his Al-Qaida organization and refused to give him up. To keep order in that war-torn and fragmented country, and to give its central adminstration headed by “Transitional Chairman” Hamid Karzai a chance to get started with rebuilding, since December, 2001, there has been a so-called International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there, mainly in the capital city Kabul and surroundings.

Although American forces remain in Afghanistan, mainly to track down suspected remaining terrorist bases along the country’s borders, the Bush administration has mostly left the formal peace-keeping and maintenance of law and order which is the ISAF’s mandate to troops from other countries. First the British were in charge, then (from June, 2002, until February, 2003) the Turks, and since February a combined force of German and Dutch soldiers. NATO will take formal command of ISAF in August; in terms of specific nationality, though, the Canadians will take charge of the effort then, and deploy 2,000 of their troops to the ISAF in Kabul, although troops of other nationalities will be involved in this NATO effort.

We all know from the daily news of the difficult time American and British troops are currently having in Iraq with insurgent attacks. The situation is not all that much better in Afghanistan; indeed, although Western troops there may be getting killed and injured less frequently, that’s likely because their goals are much less ambitious than those of coalition forces in Iraq. Coalition forces strive to control all of Iraq, in pursuance of such objectives as finally and definitively crushing the former Baath Party ruling apparatus (and capturing Saddam Hussein and the rest of his missing compatriots on the “pack of cards”), finding those elusive weapons of mass destruction, and putting every part of that country back together into a new political whole. In Afghanistan, by contrast, Western objectives seem limited to the above-mentioned pursuit of terrorists and terrorist base-camps, and the securing of Kabul. Other parts of that vast country, where patrolling American forces don’t happen to be passing through at the time, are on their own and have to await the new Afghan army, currently still in training. But what is really happening is that the centuries-old Afghan political pattern of local warlords is reasserting itself. It seems that the authority of Hamid Karzai’s government extends not much more than the reach of the ISAF soldiers stationed in Kabul, and one way you can tell this is true is that Afghan opium production is headed back up and Iran, in particular, is having a serious problem stopping its flow through the impossibly long Iran-Afghanistan border to Iranian addicts and beyond. (You’d have to assume that Karzai, who is very much America’s and the West’s Afghan in Kabul, would put a stop to this if he could. His American helpers have a wide range of experience and techniques, gained in places like Colombia, for the eradication of crops that a government does not want to see grown.)

The reasonable solution to Afghanistan’s problems would seem to be getting the ISAF troops in Kabul to head out of the capital city to challenge the warlords ruling in the provinces and help assert the central government’s authority more. That option is formally under discussion, but you get the feeling from news reports that the current German-Dutch preoccupation is much more basic than that: namely, just holding on, and hoping that not too many more of their soldiers will be killed before blessed relief arrives at the end of the summer, in the form of NATO command and the Canadian troops (although it seems that some German soldiers might stay on ISAF duty even after that point). So the situation in Afghanistan has basically developed very similarly to that in Iraq. In each case the war has been “won,” but quite a few of the defeated natives (quite likely aided by outside volunteers) have not accepted the victory and are waging guerrilla war to harass and inflict casualties on the occupying troops. Their aim, of course, is to make the occupation effort too costly in lives and material (but especially in lives) to the Western polities who are providing the funds and the sons and daughters to wage it, so that the occupying forces eventually withdraw and leave the natives to rebuild their counties according to their own preferences.

One would think that this is easy to do. After Vietnam, America is supposed to lack the stomach for long, drawn-out guerrilla conflicts. It’s even worse for Germany and the Netherlands (although so far it has been the German ISAF troops who have been taking all the casualties). The latter’s experience with native insurgency was the unsuccessful attempt to keep control of the Dutch East Indies after the Second World War, more than fifty years back into the past; in any case both of these countries are of course in Europe, the continent which since that World War has known only prosperity and resolution of inter-state disputes through negotiation, and nothing like occupying a strange, far-away country filled with hostiles who don’t want to negotiate with you but just shoot you. Only the British have a recent insurgent-type experience to go on, in Northern Ireland, which seems to be ending up successfully (maybe – if they’re lucky).

Still, the Bush administration has certainly not yet shown any wobbling over Iraq – quite the contrary, it has delayed the pull-out from there of some of the very troops (e.g. the Third Infantry Division) which did the hard work of fighting to Baghdad in the first place. (And you can imagine how thrilled those soldiers are to have their homecomings delayed so they can remain to get shot at in Iraq’s 40-degree-Centigrade summer heat!) For his part, British prime minister Tony Blair strongly affirmed his country’s commitment to the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq right after the killing by a mob of six British military policemen earlier this week.

Unfortunately, the first crack in this façade of Western determination has appeared on the German side, and it comes from a rather remarkable source – from Oberst (i.e. Colonel) Bernhard Gertz, the head of the Deutscher Bundeswehrverband, the German soldiers’ union! (Naturally it has a website; German-readers can visit it here.) You can’t say that Colonel Gertz doesn’t keep a sharp eye out for the interests of his rank-and-file; as the German business newspaper Handelsblatt reported at the time, back in late March when President Bush had issued his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and tensions were reaching a breaking-point, he got wind of the fact that some German troops were in fact going to be involved in any imminent conflict, in the form of the German Nuclear/Biological/Chemical unit training in Kuwait (widely-known about) and the German airmen who were to make up one-third of the crews manning the AWACS surveillance planes that American forces were going to borrow from NATO to use in the air campaign (not so widely-known). He demanded that Gerhard Schröder’s government get approval from the Bundestag for these deployments, a demand the SPD government rejected as unnecessary.

The biggest disaster that has befallen German ISAF soldiers to date was the attack by a suicide-taxi on a bus carrying German troops back to Kabul from training on 7 June; four were killed, twenty-nine wounded (among which seven seriously). Colonel Gertz was quick to comment: As reported in the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, in a newspaper interview (I don’t know with which newspaper) he called Afghanistan a “powderkeg” . . . . If the security situation dramatically worsens, then we should either substantially reinforce the ISAF peace-keeping troops – or withdraw them out of Afghanistan.” Now, three weeks later, Colonel Gertz has already had enough, and he’s no longer interested in reinforcement. In a written contribution to yesterday’s Die Welt, he writes “If the attacks on our soldiers continue to mount, we must seriously take into consideration the ending of our engagement in Afghanistan.”

Naturally, he’s concerned for his boys, but Colonel Gertz also has some good arguments. The security situation in Afghanistan continues to worsen, according to all Western intelligence agencies. “What sense does it make to support the Karzai government in Kabul,” asks Colonel Gertz, “when Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters can make use of secure base areas on the other side of the Pakistani border, when they have largely re-formed their ranks there, when they extensively control Kandahar Province, and when they enjoy great support from among the population?” He dismisses the effort to rebuild Afghanistan as “piecework”; he decries the lack of any comprehensive plan of political and military measures to take to break the power of the war- and druglords reigning in the Afghan countryside. And he rejects any thought of having ISAF troops patrolling beyond Kabul as “precisely the wrong way to go” (“der exemplarisch falsche Weg“).

All of these are very valid points per se. Indeed, you could say that Colonel Gertz does a masterful job of pointing out just where the Emperor is lacking clothing – i.e. of giving expression to truths that neither Germany’s opposition parties, nor certainly the Defense Ministry or the Schröder government in general, have yet dared to admit publicly – even though (at least according to the Die Welt article) these represent the “overwhelming opinion in the Bundeswehr [or German Army”> leadership,” “where it is now being asked internally how we will be able to get out of the Afghanistan adventure in one piece” (“wo intern gefragt wird, wie man heil aus dem Afghanistan-Abenteuer herauskommen könne“).

Gee, you might think, the American and British armies don’t have anyone in a similar position who could offer these sorts of insights – they don’t allow unions in those armies. But then you might catch yourself: Of course they don’t have anyone similar, of course there are no unions in the American and British armies, because those are armed forces which still on occasion are called upon to actually engage in and win wars, that is, to use fire and maneuver (usually under adverse conditions of fear and physical discomfort) to engage and kill the enemy in order to accomplish national political objectives. The very fact of unions in both the German and Dutch armies is a loud testament to their “Europeanness” cited above – inter-state disputes are resolved by negotiation, as are disputes between management and labor, or, as the case may be, between commanders and soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

Pity those American soldiers of the Third ID, huh?, who still don’t get to go home after smashing their way all the way to Baghdad; it just so happens that America’s strategic interest in Iraq requires them to stay around to beat down those who are still trying to destabilize that country. (I have to disclose my bias: I served four years as an enlisted man in the American army – infantry – and three years as an armor officer.) Or consider how things were so much worse in the past: Did Hitler have to promise beach-leave to his paratroopers who executed a daring airborne invasion to capture Crete from the British in 1941? And boy, sometimes fighting on the Russian front (e.g. temperatures below 0° C before Moscow in December, 1941, still fighting in summer-issue uniforms) was enough to make you want to unload on your nearest union representative – except that there wasn’t any. Still, both in World War I and World War II the German Army, inevitably fighting with inferior numbers, established for itself a fearsome reputation and very nearly accomplished the goals that its political masters had set out for it, as distasteful as they were.

Granted, the existence of a soldier’s union does not necessarily mean that the present-day German armed forces are of low war-fighting quality. Those armed forces have simply never had to face a serious test, or indeed any test at all. The sort of “tests” I’m talking about are of course the kind that Germany, and its neighbors, would much rather that its armed forces not be subject to – “tests” that its armed forces had rather too much of in the first half of the twentieth century.

But maybe Germany is being tested right now, as it sees its soldiers attacked and killed in a foreign land by guerrilla fighters employing subterfuge. And maybe – as it contemplates withdrawal – it is failing.

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