General John Craddock, the outgoing SACEUR, says the caveats that constrain how some countries’ NATO forces are used “increase the risk to every service member deployed in Afghanistan and bring increased risk to mission success” and are “a detriment to effective command and control.” 

Indeed, according to Arnaud de Borchgrave, Craddock “would gladly forgo more NATO troops to fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan if allied countries dropped their caveats.”

While all NATO forces save for the United States, the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands have operated under caveats, Germany’s caveats are the most restrictive and derided. Not only could Bundeswehr soldiers fire their weapons only in self-defense but they were not even allowed to describe their actions as an “attack” but rather as “use of appropriate force.”

Because of these caveats, as de Borchgrave notes, there is a dark joke circulating among troops in Afghanistan that ISAF stands for “I Saw Americans Fight.”  (The even darker truth is that 38 German warriors have died and another 118 have been wounded in service in Afghanistan.)

According to a Spiegel report, though, that may be about to change.  At the same time public opposition for the war — which German leaders are loathe to actually describe as a “war” — makes it harder to sustain a Bundeswehr presence, the country is “slowly but surely changing the rules for combat on Afghanistan, allowing its forces to take a more offensive approach.”

The German public is increasingly skeptical about the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of Germans are currently in favor of a rapid withdrawal. In reality, the opposite is taking place. The Bundeswehr is becoming more entrenched in this war and it is also gradually going on the offensive.

According to information SPIEGEL has obtained, the rules of engagement have been — and are still being — revised. The impression is that the German deployment is a peacekeeping operation engaged in what is referred to as a “stabilization mission.” But in fact recent events suggest that the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan is, surreptitiously, becoming more aggressive.

This shift is another move towards the normalization of Germany’s feelings about itself as a nation. It’s something that German governments have been working toward for 60 years. And in many respects, the country is already there — so now is the time for Germany to consider military matters. This is one of the most difficult areas for Germans to contemplate — after all, there was a time when German soldiers were best known for their terrible assault on most of the rest of the world.

Indeed, as Nick Siegel recently noted, the awarding of Germany’s first medals for valor since WWII would seem evidence that Europe’s richest country is about to take its rightful place in NATO.   Yet, as the Spiegel piece continues, these changes have been made very quietly for fear of public outcry.   When the caveat was changed on April 8 to remove the phrase “The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is taking place or is imminent,” no announcement was made.  Indeed:

Not even the German parliament’s defense committee was informed of this small but significant change. When Werner Hoyer, a politician with the business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), heard of the changes last Friday, his first reaction was to ask why parliament had not been made aware of the changes — especially before voting on a resolution to approve the deployment of German military personnel in the NATO AWACS mission in Afghanistan.

Niels Annen, a member of parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), voiced his irritation over the Bundeswehr’s secretive handling of the case. “The way this was done raises questions,” Annen said — even though, he added, he had no fundamental objections to the adjustments. Fellow member of parliament Eckart von Klaeden, with the conservative Christian Democrats, said that, generally, he welcomed the change even though he had only just heard about it. It makes sense to “make the rules of engagement conform to military requirements and to the mission’s goals,” he said.

Yes, it does. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  

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