Afghanistan Disillusionment Grows in Germany

Close observers of the NATO effort in Afghanistan (including EuroSavant) have always been aware that there is something strange about the deployment of German troops there, which now has passed the eight-year mark. For starters there is their exclusive placement in the north of the country, when all the meaningful anti-Taliban action is in the south (or at least used to be!), this deployment also features fairly absurd rules-of-engagement designed to restrict the German Army (or Bundeswehr) there to defensive duties only. Now you can add into this mix a strong and growing skepticism among the public back home whether the Bundeswehr should be there in the first place, if we can credit an article by Hauke Friederichs in the prestigious German opinion newspaper Die Zeit, entitled Germany’s self-delusion in the Hindu Kush.

That caustic title is actually the very same as that of a new book out by Stefan Kornelius, head of the foreign affairs department at Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. The expanded list he provides of “defense-only” rules under which the German troops have to work is truly ridiculous. They may fire at targets only after they have first been attacked, and even then may not pursue those enemy forces if they should then try to flee; no night flights are allowed by either fixed-winged or helicopters – and, in any case, anything German pilots may learn up there in the way of intelligence on the enemy cannot be radioed back directly (i.e. in “real-time”), but must be debriefed only after that aircraft is back on the ground. For the rule that takes the cake I almost chose the one reading “No counter-narcotics activity; you’re not here for that,” which among other things supposedly has resulted in opium poppies for harvesting being grown right next to a German base! But no, that has to yield pride-of-place to Friederichs’ mention that German government lawyers are still filing legal complaints against soldiers who fire their weapons in self-defense when it’s not clear that the Taliban have indeed fired first!

Needless to say, morale is low, especially now that the German troops are no longer engaged in the help-the-locals development work that many of them thought was why they came – it’s too dangerous now. There’s precious little coverage back in Germany of their efforts there, as well as little in the way of medals, awards, and other such recognition. Unfortunately, their morale is likely to get much lower in the near future: the schedule of Afghan government elections coming up on 20 August, followed by a German general election on 27 September, inevitably means that attacks against them are shortly to reach a crescendo as the Taliban shrewdly try to produce more casualties and thus sap support for the troop deployment further.

Tellingly, Friederichs passes along Kornelius’ assessment that, when it comes to public treatment of Afghanistan, it’s the US under Obama that is doing things right. In Germany nobody wants to talk about the deployment over there of 3,500 troops (it’s not allowed to be called a “war”), and the government likewise has no interest in actually trying to explain to its electorate precisely why they are there in the first place, particularly with those elections coming up. In the US, in contrast, Obama is said to be willing to speak openly of “the violent task of stabilizing Afghanistan.” That’s all very interesting, given that no less than the New York Times just yesterday published a piece on how the current administration still can’t figure out how to define “winning” in Afghanistan, a persistent but vital puzzle that other writers have been covering even longer back into the past.

Ultimately, for Germany the way forward – for good or for bad – depends precisely on that double-set of elections coming up that will make life for the Bundeswehr troops there ever-more precarious. Kornelius: “If the Afghan government [that emerges] after the election makes no progress, the international troops lose their basis. Militarily Afghanistan can’t be won, living conditions for Afghans must [first] be bettered. Otherwise I hold a withdrawal of the international troops in one or two years to be realistic.” Or even sooner than that for the Bundeswehr, of course, if the Left/Green/FDP opposition manages to take over in Germany after 27 September.

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