The Bundeswehr has evolved from refusing to kill known militants to calling in air strikes based on flimsy evidence. The German deployment has been a complete failure. The Bundeswehr is consistently undermining the allied tasks in Afghanistan and should either reevaluate or withdraw.
On November 6, 2007, a group of Afghan militants exploded a bomb at a sugar factory in Baghlan Province while visiting members of the Afghan parliament and a local school were on a tour. Nearly eighty people died, including dozens of children and six parliamentarians, making it one of the deadliest insurgent attacks of the war. Five months later, in March of 2008, the German KSK had located the man they believed responsible for the attack. As they closed in to capture him, his security forces spotted them and the man escaped. While the KSK could have shot and killed the militant commander, they did not—Germany’s rules of engagement did not permit them to do so.
The incident in Baghlan, and Germany’s inability to manage its aftermath, is part of a years-long pattern of mismanagement and confusing command decisions by the German Army in Northern Afghanistan. Responsible for nine provinces, the German Army has faced growing criticism of its refusal to participate in combat over the last few years, and its latest action—calling in an air strike in Kunduz that is reported to have killed dozens or more civilians siphoning fuel from a hijacked truck—has drawn sharp condemnation from the international community.
Some of these incidents boggle the mind. In 2005, for example, a local German unit refused for hours to assist an Alternative Livelihoods crew that had been struck by an IED in Badakhstan Province. Even though some of the men were bleeding out onto the road, it was dusk and therefore deemed too dangerous to mount a rescue operation. After much hectoring from the UN and the U.S. they eventually reached the stricken men.
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. At a meeting of NATO parliamentarians in Québec in 2006, both the Canadian and British contingents angrily accused Germany of refusing to do the same heavy lifting they did. While Canada and Britain suffered relatively high losses, Germany suffered relatively little.
Germany has also failed to train the Afghan police. Shortly after the 2001 invasion, Germany took up the task of training and deploying a new police force for Afghanistan. Despite lofty goals to field 80,000 police officers, they only sent 41 trainers. The U.S., frustrated at the lack of progress, has been taking over more of the police mentorship since 2006.
Things seemed to change in July of this year, when the German Ministry of Defense issued new directives that allow the Army to behave pre-emptively. They can actually attack militants before an attack, not only during or after.
Things do not seem to have changed much. Despite the Kunduz air strike—which initial reports indicate was based on some grainy aerial video and a single person insisting the crowd was Taliban—officials in Kunduz are angry that the German Army is not more active in its pursuit of insurgents. While it remains shocking that, within the space of a few months, Germany has evolved from refusing to kill known militants to calling in air strikes based on flimsy evidence, there remains deep frustration from the locals that security continues to worsen.
Germany’s stewardship of the North has been a disaster. They have mismanaged the area, overseen a shocking deterioration in security, and managed to kill dozens of civilians when they chose to become proactive. For too many years, Germany has been failing the people of Afghanistan. If the military won’t start to act like a real Army, it should scale back its commitment in Afghanistan and allow other nations to take responsibility.
Joshua Foust is a military analyst. He blogs about Central Asia at Registan. This essay previously appeared at Atlantic Community.