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Afghanistan, the Mediterranean and Congo
– by Alexander Blum
In summer, Germany will probably provide a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) in northern Afghanistan, and German soldiers will replace Norwegians, who will return home. In all likelihood, German soldiers will see combat. The Federal Government is expected to comply with this request of NATO, though it is expected to resist the demand of the US and Canada to deploy soldiers long term to eastern and southern Afghanistan, where combat is frequent. Bundeswehr leadership, moreover, is in favour of expanding the German presence in northern Afghanistan by another 1,000 troops.
For six years, the Bundeswehr (Germany’s armed forces) has been taking part in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was created by Security Council resolution 1623. Currently, some 2,800 German soldiers are involved. Germany leads the Regional Command North (RC North), one of five RCs. In Germany, however, most people seem to think that the Bundeswehr is something like an emergency-relief agency with guns. Media reports about new schools or soldiers handing out candy have reinforced that image.
Nonetheless, support for Germany’s military involvement in the Hindu Kush region is dropping among the general public. According to recent surveys, 55 % of Germans think the mission should be discontinued. QRF deployment is unlikely to turn that trend around.
German media report that Afghanistan has two distinct regions: a peaceful north, and a war-afflicted east and south. That dichotomy oversimplifies matters. There are skirmishes in the north as well. On the other hand, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are also at work in the south. An infantryman described the situation: “A battle is fought on one street, the next one is being patrolled, and NATO soldiers are constructing a school on the third.” German soldiers are trained to handle all three tasks.
Their equipment is good. As one captain put it, a few things could be improved, but overall equipment is excellent compared to what soldiers from other nations have. At the same time, most soldiers hardly leave camp – and life at camp is boring. Few soldiers can assess from personal experience whether, and to what extent, the Bundeswehr are helping to stabilise the country. Nonetheless, most German soldiers believe their mission makes sense. No doubt, financial bonuses and the prospect of medals boost motivation.
Numerous polls show that Afghanistan’s people appreciate the work done by NATO forces. According to an Afghani interpreter working for the German services in Kabul, civil war would break out, should the international soldiers go home.
In contrast, NGOs are more skeptical about what the military is doing. Soldiers in Afghanistan are helping to rebuild the country along with civilian aid workers in PRTs. As the German Association of Development Non-Governmental Organisations (Venro) sees it, this cooperation is making life more dangerous for civilian agencies. “Identifying ourselves as aid workers used to protect us, but it doesn’t anymore,” complains Jürgen Lieser of Venro.
A number of aid agencies, including Caritas and German Agro Action, have therefore been calling for a change in policy for months. Lieser says they do principally oppose the ISAF mandate, but want soldiers to exclusively focus on their core task: securing the peace by military means. In return, reconstruction should be the task of civil actors. Reinhold Robbe, who represents the interests of German soldiers as a sort of ombudsman to the German parliament, disagrees: “There can be no civil reconstruction in Afghanistan without military protection of what the reconstruction teams are working on.” As he sees it, these tasks are two sides of the same coin, and the approach works well in northern Afghanistan. That message resounds well with many soldiers.
Routine in the Balkans
The Bundeswehr is becoming something like a global player. The public hardly seems to take notice of the German soldiers still in the Balkans. Since 1999, German soldiers have been stationed in Kosovo, which separated from Serbia. As in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the number of troops is gradually dropping – a sign that things are stable. Nonetheless, Kosovo continues to suffer from crime and high unemployment.
Unlike their comrades in Afghanistan, soldiers here can leave their camp without armoured vehicles. There is little sense of danger. Nonetheless, the situation is so fragile that no one can say for sure when the troops will be completely withdrawn. The recent declaration of independence is one reason the situation could escalate again. German soldiers in Kosovo know that. “We are prepared for anything,” an infantryman said. As D+C was going to print, they conducted patrols and stayed in contact with the people to prevent crises.
The local people accept the presence of NATO forces, and German soldiers have gotten used to their mission. Many of them have been stationed here several times. Some of them are even jokingly called “mission junkies” because they keep coming back. As one officer put it, they “consider the mission enjoyable”.
Soldiers ordered to Bosnia occasionally joke that they are “practically going on vacation”. “It would be great if we could get this far in Kosovo or even in Afghanistan,” an officer stated. The end can already be foreseen for this mission. Nonetheless, one captain said that German soldiers are still needed on the ground: “Sustainable reconstruction requires military protection.”
While the Balkans have almost become routine, German soldiers entered new territory in Congo in 2006. Many Germans did not understand why their soldiers were being sent there in the first place, nor did all of the soldiers themselves. Tropical diseases, child soldiers, a foreign culture – the list of worries was long. The motto seemed to be “get in quick and get out quick”. The stated aim was peaceful presidential elections. After that was done, no reconstruction work was offered. Looking back, members of that mission believe they were quite successful; and Germany’s Foreign Office agrees.
But even before the mission had got underway, Bernhard Gertz, chairman of the Bundeswehr Verband, a soldiers’ interest group, voiced well-founded doubt in the mission's political purpose. Approximately 1,500 EU soldiers were sent to Congo, and all were stationed in Kinshasa. Violence broke out again once they left. The EU intervention did not bring peace to the giant country. How could it have?
Success off the coast of Lebanon
The UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) is more of a success. This mission, which began in 2006, is generally handled in the media as a patrol of the seas with a holiday flair. While the mission has become routine, there is no sign of vacationing.
In Lebanon’s coastal waters, German units patrol as part of a multinational force. They survey airspace and control the cargo on freighters going in and out of the area to prevent weapons from being smuggled in. While the soldiers cannot inspect any ship they want without reasonable suspicion and expressed orders, the success is nonetheless palpable. As one Marine put it, “small traffic jams are once again building up in the entrance to Beirut's port”. The economy is on the upswing.
The Marine says that natural forces are the “main enemy” off the Lebanese coast. Occasionally, German sailors rescue people at sea. While not directly related to their actual mission, such tasks make the soldiers proud. They do not feel threatened or in danger here.