The German parliament has extended the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan for another fourteen months. A discussion is now needed on what goals the German army can realistically be expected to achieve and which strategy will offer the best hope for success.
Discussing military strategy in public seems somehow odd in Germany. Such dialogue in the US, where academics and journalists alike follow and sometimes drive the debate on counterinsurgency, proves that it is not always the generals who have the soundest understanding of new patterns of warfare. Smaller countries like the Netherlands or Denmark also show a remarkable willingness to adapt to new military realities. While still limited to the relatively stable northern region of Afghanistan, Germany needs to be prepared for when violence comes to German troops.
When German forces entered Afghanistan nearly seven years ago, they had little more than their recent peacekeeping experience from the Balkans to guide them. The idea was that reconstruction together with a democratically elected government would prevent the country from sliding back into violence. All the German soldiers had to do was man well-defended camps and conduct occasional patrols, thus deterring the well-known regional power brokers from taking up arms against the central government. Now confronted with a rising insurgency that — as suggested by anecdotal evidence — is to a large extent a grass-roots movement fueled by the mere presence of foreign forces, German strategy has not changed much. Worse, a debate on the aims and strategy for the Bundeswehr’s mission, which could give valuable input to the political and military leadership, is painfully lacking.
Here are six suggestions for such a debate:
- Acknowledge the need to think about counterinsurgency. That does not necessarily mean adopting US doctrine, but something more sophisticated than building schools and hoping for the good will of the population is necessary. Experience shows that the dynamics of a counterinsurgency campaign are almost always underappreciated.
- Dramatically improve culture and language skills. These barriers hamper all operations. Dari is still seldom taught at the Bundeswehr’s language institute. A new concept for linguists is urgently needed, from two-week courses for “combat linguists” to fully trained translators. Furthermore, in a culture that prefers politeness to honesty (most Afghans would find it rude to admit they don’t know the directions you’re asking for), Westerners are prone to grave cultural misunderstandings.
- Counterinsurgency is population-centric warfare, thus intelligence in a counterinsurgency campaign must be as well. Intelligence collection, and especially analysis, should focus on the local population. Most importantly, trained collectors and analysts are best utilized in one theater — don’t send them to Bosnia once they have a grasp on the structures and dynamics in Badakhshan.
- Transform psychological operations. Insurgents are fairly efficient in framing the foreign military presence as an occupation. Counter their narratives day and night with a coherent and credible narrative for the campaign. Go where the population is (and the insurgents). Use teahouses, bazaars and mosques. Constantly monitor and improve the effects of this counter narrative.
- Be prepared to get out of the camps. It is not enough to tell the population that you are there for their security; you have to make sure the insurgents cannot threaten them into compliance. This can be achieved only by constant presence, not by occasional patrols. Thus an infantry increase is needed.
- Delegate authority to the most local level possible. Yes, Afghanistan is a very demanding and politically sensitive mission. However, the PRT-commander, RC North in Mazar, or the ministry in Berlin cannot decide everything. The Bundeswehr was once proud of its famous Auftragstaktik – adapting tactics to the local situation. It must live up to this flexible and efficient tradition.
Florian Broschk is a lecturer in Islamic studies at Bonn University and teaches Dari at the Federal Language Institute. As a reserve officer he served four tours with ISAF in Afghanistan. This piece was originally published at Atlantic Community.