Eagle Resurgent? The Bundeswehr in Afghanistan

Fredag, 14. Augusti 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Timo Behr
forskare - forskningsprogrammet Europeiska Unionen

Eagle Resurgent? The Bundeswehr in Afghanistan

Germany’s recent military offensive in northern Afghanistan – the country’s largest since the end of the Second World War – signals a shift in German strategy and puts an end to the illusion that the Bundeswehr is engaged in just another “stabilization mission.” The changing mission of German forces holds valuable lessons for countries like Finland, faced with similar questions about the role and purpose of their forces in Afghanistan.

Out of the spotlights of the international media (at that time preoccupied with US-UK operations in Helmand Province) Germany’s Bundeswehr launched a joint military offensive with Afghan forces on 19 July near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. The declared aim of Operation “Adler” (Eagle) was to dislodge Taliban rebels from the notoriously unstable Chahar Dara district in preparation of the upcoming Afghan elections. Involving some 300 German and 600 Afghan soldiers over a period of 11 days, the operation was seen as a first for Germany’s armed forces, which have previously participated in only a few smaller operations.

Although relatively minor in scale and intensity – some 20 Taliban fighters were killed and a handful captured with much of the heavy fighting conducted by Afghan forces – Operation “Adler” has been heralded as signaling a decisive shift in Germany’s military deployment. By breaking with previous restrictions on the rules of engagement and taking the fight to the enemy, the operation indicates a shift away from Germany’s singular emphasis on civilian measures of crisis management in Afghanistan. This seems to contradict the insistence of most German policy-makers that the Bundeswehr is merely involved in a “stabilization mission” in northern Afghanistan and opens the way for a greater German involvement in counter-insurgency operations.

In reality, this transformation has been long in the waiting. Since the end of the Cold War, German forces have been mercilessly downsized and reshaped and have seen deployments in a variety of faraway places. Indeed, among Germany’s policy-making elite, there is now a widespread consensus that the country’s global interests and responsibilities demand a more active strategic engagement – including in the Hindu Kush. But despite this greater willingness to shoulder military responsibilities, Bundeswehr deployments have often been hampered by Germany’s now deep-rooted culture of pacifism. Thus, while German soldiers have been sent abroad in rising numbers and on ever more dangerous missions, policy-makers have tightly restricted their ability to use military force.

This disconnect is nowhere clearer than in Afghanistan. The German government has for long regarded the deployment of some 4,000 Bundeswehr soldiers in the northern sector of the country as a “stabilization mission” and rejected all suggestions that Germany is “at war” with the Taliban. The result has been overtly restrictive rules of engagement, preventing German soldiers from pursuing their enemies when under attack or keeping German aircraft and helicopters grounded at night. In effect, these restrictions have made it more difficult for the Bundeswehr to “get its job done” and have earned Germany the ridicule and scorn of many of its NATO allies fighting the Taliban insurgency.

While the German government has done much to differentiate its mission in northern Afghanistan from the situation in the more unstable South, the war has gradually come to the Bundeswehr. Under pressure from an ever more aggressive Taliban insurgency, German soldiers are increasingly involved in a hot shooting war in which casualties are mounting (overall 35 German soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far). Earlier last month, the German Ministry of Defense reacted by issuing new and more robust rules of engagement, allowing German troops to fire earlier and to actively pursue their enemies. Germany’s latest military operation can be seen as a test for this new strategy. While the offensive is now over, Afghan commanders insist that they are counting on German troops to fight other pockets of Taliban resistance in the region before the elections.

All of this demonstrates that Germany’s deployment in Afghanistan is slowly turning into more of a counter-insurgency operation and that German exceptionalism, when it concerns the use of force, is gradually coming to an end. Although German politicians will maintain the charade of a civilian peacekeeping mission for some time to come – mainly due to low domestic support and the upcoming German elections – deteriorating local circumstances make such a mission increasingly impossible. Ultimately, this shows the inability of foreign troops to keep out of the ongoing Afghan civil war. Finnish troops, also deployed in the northern sector, would be well advised to take note.

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