“The Germans Have to Learn How to Kill”

by Joshua Foust on 11/21/2006 · 17 comments


I’m sure we can’t really blame the German military for being reluctant to kill people. But when you commit to a country, with the express purpose of providing security, especially in a war zone, killing is unfortunately necessary. The German forces’ refusal to engage in combat, however, has begun to have some nasty repurcussions.

Aside from the details of such incidents, there are two things the reports reveal to the minister on a daily basis. The first is that Afghanistan is experiencing its worst wave of violence since the Taliban regime was toppled five years ago. NATO, which sees itself as the world’s most powerful military alliance, faces the real possibility of political and possibly even military defeat in its bloody war of attrition with the Taliban. Second, German soldiers are noticeably absent from the increasingly brutal fighting in the country…

The defense ministry still refuses to recognize the 64 Bundeswehr soldiers who have lost their lives on foreign missions to date as “war dead.” In addition to saving the government the cost of permanently maintaining the graves of soldiers classified as casualties of war, it enables the military to avoid using words like “war,” “death” and “foreign mission” in the same context.

The camouflage has paid off. According to opinion polls, the Bundeswehr, along with the Federal Constitutional Court and the police force, have enjoyed the highest levels of public confidence of all public institutions — possibly because many see the military essentially as an armed relief organization.

Such a stance is probably laudable on its own, but in the context of Afghanistan, it has led to infighting among NATO member countries. Not just the Americans, but the British and Canadians have complained that Germany is taking the credit for securing the peace in Afghanistan, while doing little to actually secure the peace. The problem is caveats, or conditions under which member countries allow their troops to be deployed to the area. At the moment, there are 102 of them, many of which amount to, “we expect the Americans and Canadians and Brits to help our troops should they come under fire, but we cannot help them.”

The chronic problem in Afghanistan is troop levels. But it’s really not—removing these caveats, including the ones that forbid the German troops from entering combat zones, would effectively free up enough soldiers to do the painful and bloody task of re-removing the Taliban from the country. I suggest reading that entire piece for good insight into exactly how difficult the campaign in Afghianstan has become.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Bill Walsh November 21, 2006 at 1:10 pm

Is that a German soldier? I ask because he’s carrying a Kalashnikov.

Aha! No, he’s not. Digging through the Spiegel slideshow, it turns out he’s Macedonian.

And, man, can you imagine going back in time 50 or a 100 years and trying to explain to someone, “Yeah, the problem with the Germans is that they’re not willing to pick up a rifle and do some hard soldiering”? : )

Joshua Foust November 21, 2006 at 4:46 pm

I agree, it’s a strange conundrum… but one that must be solved if we’re to have success in Afghanistan. For all intents and purposes, the Germans soldiers are dead weight, something the already-stretched Afghan force cannot withstand.

JC November 21, 2006 at 10:12 pm

What a heck of a title chosen. It sounds so anti-humanitarian and there is a history as to why the Germans are limited in combat roles. What is going to result even if the Germans kill more people? Isn’t there enough killing anyway? Why add to it? Isn’t what is really needed is a political/economic/military strategy combined? Perhaps killing is easier than developing a strategy but violence seems to cause more violence. NATO really needs a better strategy. Otherwise, it is just running around the country stamping out fires that reappear elsewhere, so to speak. Everyone seems to be stuck in a rut in Afghanistan and maybe the real Afghan experts need to be brought in — there are many types of security and military security is only one aspect. Economic and social (societal) security are vital. Besides, as a result of not having enough area experts involved in development and planning, the Allies are being manipulated and innocent people are being killed. So what good is being able to kill people (as if any good can come out of this) if you can’t even distinguish ally from foe? You shoot the wrong person, yes you may be able to get away with it , but your mission will go to hell in a handbasket real fast…

night_eulen November 22, 2006 at 12:09 am

I cannot agree with your article, Joshua. The trouble in Afghanistan is not that the Germans don’t kill. If the master plan is not thought through well (which our dear GW Bush did not), then you can bring in as much military as possible without any change. Why do you think the colonies in the last century were given up? It was not because of a lack of soldiers.

Thanks o JC, he at brought in the right perspective. There are severe economic and social problems. The US and their allies do not have an EXIT strategy, like in Irak and even Kosovo. I am actually just waiting for another nice picture of teh US embassy being left by the staff, like in Saigon. Let’s wait and see.

andreas November 22, 2006 at 5:20 am

No, the new political rhetoric’s to involve German soldiers in the south of Afghanistan is a bad move. The german ISAF troops should not take part in the combat zones of the NATO and American led forces, because their strategies don’t coincide.
Since I saw american soldiers and strange paramilitary personnel in Kabul’s Chicken Street, the fundamental differences became obvious to me. Running around in jeans, with guns in a wild west style and throwing dollar notes out of jeeps – this will not lead to any acceptance as partners. Seeing that, it seems not difficult to imagine how the same soldiers will behave in combat regions. One is forced to see that the abuse of power by soldiers in Afghanistan and Irak is a structural problem of this kind of warfare. The military strategy and related to it, the attitude of the soldiers is wrong; Germans, Italians and others do good not to take part in it. Indeed, it is not dispensable that the military cultivates less martial language. Your headline is a good example for that.

Joshua Foust November 22, 2006 at 6:31 am

I feel I should note that the title is a quote from the article (which you all should read before commenting). And, anyone who thinks I’m advocating a policy of willy-nilly killing on the part of the NATO forces has clearly never read anything else I’ve written here on the subject. The point isn’t that the military alone isn’t doing the trick, the point is that the military, because of policies like the one from Germany, isn’t even doing its job, which is providing security for the provinces outside of Kabul.

The fact remains, there is a genuine need for more troops to secure the southern bit of the country, and the German troops are forbidden by the Bundestag to go there. Yes, there is also a need for actual nation-building personnel—people who know how to establish the various social institutions that make up a functioning society—but those institutions mean little if the Taliban can operate with near-impunity. Since the Germans are, for all intents and purposes, forbidden from entering combat zones, they serve as dead weight to an already taxed military force.

A common complaint from NATO commanders, whether American, Canadian, or British, is that not enough troops are available for combat. They can win as many individual battles with the Taliban as they want, but there simply aren’t enough soldiers to pick up the slack and fill in the vacuum left when they need to fight elsewhere. It was a major effort to get Poland to send 1000 troops, and that is barely enough to make a dent in the problem. Allowing the other troops in the country the flexibility to respond to problems (making the security relationship two way) would go a long way towards alleviating the problem.

Look, Afghanistan if either worth solving or it is not. The nature of the Taliban means the solution must involve the military in the initial stages. We now see the folly of drawing down troop levels too soon (in the U.S.’s case, troops were siphoned off to Iraq, a true strategic blunder). Social and political reforms are a wonderful thing that must be planned for, but they mean nothing if the locals still have to fear the Taliban sweeping through their homes.

Dave November 24, 2006 at 1:36 am

wow…Im sad to be german in a way. I read the whole article and it seems that the germans simply dont want to do anything but be social workers. The Germans have lost their patriotic spirite and while we may have crushed the nazi ideoligy and warmongering from taking hold in german minds, its pathetic to see how they can’t even back us up when we’re attacked. Yes humanitarian aid is important and yes their should be more troops so why can’t their just be a managed shifting of germans to the south and other less experienced allies to the north?

yan November 24, 2006 at 9:39 am

[i]At the moment, there are 102 of them, many of which amount to, “we expect the Americans and Canadians and [b]Brits[/b] to help our troops should they come under fire, but we cannot help them.”[/i]

The article says it the other way round: “British soldiers, for example, are not to be sent to the north” – in part II, just behind the sentence containing the number 102.

I see that the situation is much more comfortable for the Germans, but it seems you can’t really blame the current mode of operation exclusively on them.

Kyrgyz kid November 27, 2006 at 2:20 am

US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, forewarned American nation about the dangers of military corruption and influence of military complex on US foreign policy in his farewell speech. His prophetic words and foresight have been confirmed by present day happenings.

US mass media is heavily censored. There is no word of high level of casualties in Afghanistan, situation is quickly getting from bad to worse. The war itself is fought for the benefit of Glorious Affiliates of certain politicians and affiliated with them corporations (Halliburton, AES, Carlyle Group, etc) and their personal interests. CNN, Fox and others are silent on this subject. In the long term, their actions are going to damage interests of American nation, I’ve no doubts on that.

Instead of contemplating on real issues, CNN, Fox and others prefer to white-wash things.

Joshua Foust November 27, 2006 at 7:33 am

No, the German’s can’t take the full brunt of the blame, they just happen to be the ones most openly debating their role in the country. In the Brits’ defense, however, the region they are not allowed to leave IS a combat zone, so it’s much more difficult to accuse them of shirking responsibility.

Kyrgyz Kid, I don’t get your point. This isn’t about the U.S., or about American media—the source I used was, in fact, German.

Kyrgyz kid November 27, 2006 at 8:58 pm

Joshua Foust, when you get my point, it’ll be too late. Issue isn’t Germans not too willing to engage in war, issue is with Zbigniew Brzezinski geopolitical concepts and Dubya’s greedy oil cronies. You can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it . Afghan equation has no military solution. No nation ever conquered Afghanistan, including Alexander The Great.

Joshua Foust November 27, 2006 at 10:17 pm

How shortsighted of you! In fact, the biggest reason the Soviets didn’t succeed in completely subjugating the entirety of Afghanistan was they had multinational resistance, spearheaded by the U.S. and funneled through Pakistan. That same dynamic is at work, at least from the Pakistani side, in which the national government denies NATO pursuit rights while offering autonomous zones along the border where Taliban units can shelter with impunity. Spouting conspiracy theories is nice and all when you hide behind a pseudonym, but getting history right matters too.

Kyrgyz kid November 28, 2006 at 2:40 am

Your posting is just confirming my points. Soviet Afghan invasion was USSR’s faux pas. I am having a sense of deja vu. Everything is the same in US-Afghan war. Initial delusion of military success turned into debilitating, pointless long warfare. Now this is USA’s faux pas. Rummie got fired from his job, he failed to deliver good planning and analysis.

No surprises Germans are staying off from this mess.

Joshua Foust November 28, 2006 at 6:26 am

Except that you’re ignoring what I’m saying. External factors, including individual countries’ refusal to shoulder the burden they signed up for and a recalcitrant Pakistan, are what is hampering the Afghan campaign – not some mystical Afghani invincibility. It’s very nice and poetic to say the Afghans have never been defeated; it’s quite another to look at why, and see what can be done differently.

Kyrgyz kid November 29, 2006 at 7:19 am

So bring in more troops then. 🙂

Josh November 29, 2006 at 8:29 am

Umm, the entire point of this article was that we don’t necessarily need a gigantic infusion of new troops, we can use what’s already there. If they would let us. Did you even read what I posted?

Kyrgyz kid November 29, 2006 at 8:47 pm

You say you posted an article, what has it to do with reality? Reality is different. Europe has raised an issue of CIA prisons, this alone shows that they have an agenda on their own. I’d say they would love to see US to fail in Central Asia and Middle East. In that case US dollar is going to tumble and euro currency will get a boost. German troops are in Afghanistan probably only to control drug trafficking routes. It’s not a secret, that after toppling of Taliban regime the volume of Afghan heroin trafficking to Europe has significantly increased. Everyone have to protect their own interests.

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