Germany Has Failed Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 9/8/2009 · 10 comments

I have an article about Germany’s counterproductive activities in Afghanistan up at The Atlantic Community. A snippet:

Since 2006, news from Germany’s provinces—mostly Kunduz and Baghlan—is a seemingly unending series of insurgent attacks, killing off civilians and government officials alike. Even the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had languished in obscurity in Waziristan for years after the 2001 invasion, began to make a comeback in Kunduz earlier this year.

Meanwhile, opinion polls suggested many Germans see their Army more as an armed relief organization than a combat force. Many German commentators bragged about the success of the German mission, proclaiming their experience of the model of “armed social work” that could save the country. Of course, while the German Army sat on its bases in the North, the Taliban came back.

The rest of NATO has noticed.

Additional comments, as always, are welcomed.

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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 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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Positroll September 8, 2009 at 7:31 am

You seem to ignore that the Germans had begun to step up to the plate lately on the ground, with use of IFV in combat (Marder shooting at insurgentes) and, more importantly, change of ROE. See,1518,637646,00.html
Yes, just before the elections, the German government wanted to avoid German casualties at almost any cost – but I think we will see a much more proactive Bundeswehr after the elections, if this event doesn’t cost CDU + FDP to much at the polls.

Joshua Foust September 8, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Not even close. If you read the piece, you’ll see that I note how strange it is that Germany transitions from never leaving their bases to calling in air strikes on flimsy evidence.

If we do see a more active German presence after the elections, then bully to them and I’ll be praising and encouraging it. But so far, we’ve not seen much to celebrate.

Bart September 8, 2009 at 9:23 am

As usual, Foust is on his soapbox with lots of criticisms from thousands of miles away and no solutions. Here’s a couple of key points:

1) The simple reality is that the Germans, like most Europeans, don’t share your assessment of the security problem in Afghanistan. They don’t beleive this war needs to be fought. Perhaps we could say they display a certain degree of intelectual humbleness in that they know what they don’t know. Whereas you have never had a discussion with a member of the Taliban, and have no real claim to being an “expert” on Afghanistan but claim that the Taliban is extremely dangerous and has to be defeated, the Euros recognize Afghanistan for the complex country that it is, and that sending 100,000 soldiers to fight a COIN in a country we know very little about might not be such a good idea.

2) The Germans are there in political support of NATO. Period. They don’t share the American assessment of what needs to be done in Afghanistan and most Germans would just as happily leave.

3) Given the overwhelming domestic German opposition to the mission in Afghanistan, the US should just be thankful to have them there at all. You can bitch all you want, but would you rather have them leave? The Germans are doing the US a favor by being in Afghanistan. We need the international legitimacy their presence provides, far more than they need to be there.

Would you rather have them just pull out? Watch how quickly the international legitimacy starts to disapear if that hapens…

Joshua Foust September 8, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Bart, it’s very simple: if the Germans don’t feel the war is worth fighting, they should leave. Period. Showing up, reluctantly, and bitching about being stuck in a warzone is the attitude of a child.

And yes, if they do not clean up their act once the elections are over, I would rather them leave. Top to bottom, kinetic to non-kinetic, Germany has been a counterproductive presence in Afghanistan. A lesser presence of other nations—not just the U.S., as I’m not necessarily advertising their takeover of the north—would have a far greater chance of success.

If Germany doesn’t change its approach.

TCHe September 8, 2009 at 9:35 am

Tough one that is 😉

Some random thought, hope they make sense. The comments on your article over there are quite good, too, and I’ll try not to rephrase the things they’ve said.

I’ll spare you the history lesson, we all know the usual argument: Germany’s past prohibits a more robust security policy and leads to German politicians placing great emphasis on civilian means of crisis resolution and conflict prevention. What’s more, it wasn’t until the German reunification that the country was able to develop an individual foreign policy.

Most likely there is some truth to that. Pacifism runs deep in this society with most Germans indeed thinking of their armed forces as “armed relief organization”. That is, if they pay much attention to the armed forces at all. More often, they don’t do so, a fact that is resembled in German federal election campaigns: domestic issues dominate the agenda. (In fact, the rather extreme Left Party seems to be the only larger party to include foreign policy in their electoral campaigns—they want an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan.)

This problem, however, isn’t limited to Germany. In fact, this is typical for most liberal democracies these days.

Politicians, if not deeply imbued with the pacific sentiment themselves, usually point at this to justify their lack of dedication to a more robust foreign policy—“the voters wouldn’t let us”.
Empirically, however, the pacifism and casualty aversion of the German public are rather under tested, so it might as well serve as a good excuse to not risk one’s political career by pursuing policies that are at best uninteresting to the electorate.

And this, I believe, is the main problem: There may or may not be a casualty aversion, there may or may not be a strong sentiment of pacifism within the German public. What certainly exists is an enormous reluctance of German politicians (and senior military leaders! Lets not forget them, it’s not only the politicians!) to accept a larger share of international responsibility and act accordingly. At least as long as it is not restricted to civilian means.

While it is common to cite opinion polls to “prove” that the German public is opposed to the war (I’m sorry, we’re not talking about a war, of course) in Afghanistan, the government doesn’t see fit to actually communicate why German forces are there in the first place, what our strategy is, and that, in fact this isn’t a “robust stabilization mission”. In fact, most references to the participation if the Bundeswehr in the ISAF mission reinforce the picture of the armed relief organization.
The obvious discrepancy between the official presentation and the reality of the ground probably only creates the opposition to the mission.

All this isn’t limited to the leftist parties so, unlike commenter #1 at atlantic-community, I doubt that we’ll see a totally different approach with a Christian Democrats/Free Democrats government. Their electorates are as critical of the mission as the Social Democrats’/Greens’/Left Party’s ones. Isolationism isn’t limited to on part of the political spectrum, only the reasons differ somewhat. (Pretty much like the always reliable anti-Americanism.)

Maybe all this isn’t fair. After all, it wasn’t until 18 years ago that Germany really pursued a fully independent foreign policy. Various institutional changes have been made, despite the usual inertia of the political and military bureaucracies. They are still lacking, the difference between aspirations and reality is still big.
Also, what does “behaving like a real army” mean? Lets not forget that the motto of the German armed forces during the Cold War has been “knowing how to fight, in order not to have to”. After all, COIN is “the graduate level of war”.
Moreover, what’s an officer to do when the politicians decide to give him only very restricted ROE?

Still, what bothers me is that it is not as if Germany had to build a COIN doctrine and according procedures from scratch. The institutional knowledge of the allies exists. It is not used, however. Instead German politicians (and soldiers!) are quick to condemn US (or, for example, British) actions and claim the superiority of the German approach far too often.

There is a certain irony now in seeing German officials repeat all the mistakes made by our allies before—even though it’s a sad one.

For the record, though: The spokesman of the German minister of defense claims that there has been another intel asset before the attack—of which he cannot speak about. Sure sounds like a good line of defense 😉

Note #2: As I mentioned on Twitter, it’s interesting how this gets blown out of proportion in the media, especially in Germany. I think it’s another sign how inexperienced this country is with regard to security policy.

Joshua Foust September 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

You have a good point. A general sense of proactiveness is missing from a lot of militaries—Germany just happens to have one of the largest troop presences, and obviously the Kunduz incident has thrown their operations into the spotlight.

TCHe September 8, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Absolutely. Germany is among the more powerful nations in the world, even if lots of people here deny it and dream of a second Switzerland.
This means that, unlike smaller countries, we cannot simply hide and claim to be new to all this. (What about the Netherlands?! A country significantly smaller but, unlike Germany, shouldering the burden.)
Lots of people are expecting us to act.

Germany is a long way from the checkbook diplomacy of the good ’ol days, but It’s still lacking. I’ve seen the guy who’s supposed to be chancellor Merkel’s advisor on foreign and security policy. It’s a shame. There’s one (1!!!) think-tank large enough to be taken seriously that focusses on this field. There’s a handful of universities that focus on something like security studies. And we’re talking about an economy that’s based on exports. Most people simply don’t care about the world (besides some donations) and think they can disengage.

THIS is how Germany treats the subject of foreign and (more precisely) security policy. Like I said, the difference between aspiration and reality.

Prithvi September 9, 2009 at 11:33 am

I’m hardly a well informed specialist, so please take my following observations with a grain of salt.

The Bundeswehr seems structurally unprepared to fight a counter-insurgency war. Traditionally, like the US army, it was a mechanized force, and its mission was pretty much to defend German soil, or maybe neighboring NATO allies from a Soviet attack as I’m sure you’re aware.

The US military on the other hand, has retooled itself to fight a variety of conflicts since Somalia and the Balkan wars, especially since for good or ill, it is a major foreign policy tool (rather than a territorial defensive force) of the sole superpower. From within the US military itself, as well as from American civilian authorities, there has been an impetus for the military to adapt and improvise during new kinds of conflicts, no matter how conservative the military culture is about change.

Since the Bundeswehr pretty much engaged in just peacekeeping in the Balkans, which was at least in Europe, there hasn’t been a strong impetus from within the German body politic, or within the Bundeswehr to reorganize itself in the absence of a Red horde, short of cutting its numbers.

As mentioned above, Germany is a large, wealthy country that purposely chooses to exercise influence abroad that is disproportionately small in comparison to its actual political and economic importance. They view the British as gung-ho adventurists, let alone what they think of the US. Berlin will take its cues from the other continental NATO states.

Unless ISAF subordinates itself to direct US operational control, I don’t see the Bundeswehr altering its behavior ir Afghanistan.

MattC86 September 10, 2009 at 9:31 am

Does anybody with much greater knowledge of German military politics than myself find anything true about Kilcullen’s assertion (made in one of his book tour stops for the Accidental Guerrilla which I attended) that the Germans are at all handicapped by the fact that “the last time they conducted counterinsurgency it was the Eastern Front?”

Is it really possible this baggage is weighty enough to mean something?

Or is this just a structural excuse?

Frankly I’m inclined to lay off the failings of European countries in Afghanistan. If anything, their participation there makes them less secure, not more, as it increases domestic extremism. . . we should get used to the idea that NATO is not going to do more than it currently is, and stop pointing the finger at our allies, who really are doing more than they need to by participating at all.


b September 10, 2009 at 1:30 pm

So over several years those fine Americans and others fighting in the South of Afghanistan did not manage to keep the insurgents down. Instead the insurgents grew under the watchful eyes of the U.S. troops stationed their and later metastasized into the North.

And that is of course the Germans fault …

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