Will Germany's Army Ever Be Ready for Battle?

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Marcel Mettelsiefen/DPA/PA

A German Bundeswehr soldier of the Mobile Operation Liaison Team MOLT 3 sits in a night camp in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan

On June 15, the German army's General Wolfgang Schneiderhan found himself in front of an audience of politicians and senior officers defending military policy — on sleeping bags. Many German soldiers "are whingeing to high heaven," Schneiderhan said at a reception thrown by the parliamentary army ombudsman, complaining about everything from being sent on yet another overseas tour of duty to the "unsuitable" sleeping bags they are given for their deployment in the Congo. Then Schneiderhan did some complaining of his own, noting the tendency for his officers to delegate blame, with no one taking responsibility for their actions. "We can't guarantee an all-round, feel-good experience for our soldiers," he said.

Schneiderhan's blunt comments do a good job of portraying the German army, or Bundeswehr, as a bunch of whining softies. But there's a serious side to his exasperation. The German army as it stands today is a relatively young creation, born after a period of demilitarization following the end of World War II. A defensive army, the Bundeswehr has become increasingly engaged in international missions and is coming under pressure to step up its involvement in out-and-out warfare. After what Schneiderhan said last week, however, many are wondering whether it's up to the task.

That question is especially urgent in Afghanistan. Germany is the third biggest troop contributor to the NATO-led international peacekeeping force there, with 3,700 German troops serving in Kabul and in northern Afghanistan, around Mazar-e-Sharif, where Germany heads the northern regional command. More German soldiers are now being sent to Afghanistan in the run-up to the elections in August, bringing the total number to 4,200 by late summer. There are also plans to send 300 more German troops to the country to help support NATO's deployment of surveillance aircraft.

Germany's Afghan mission is governed by a parliamentary mandate that limits most troops to peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts in the relatively peaceful north of Afghanistan. Even so, at least 35 German soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since early 2002, most recently on Tuesday, when three died near the northern town of Kunduz after their patrol came under fire. The mission is very unpopular back home, but Germany has been feeling pressure from its NATO allies to pull more of its weight and send troops to the south, the scene of fierce battles with Taliban insurgents.

"The German public is still reluctant to accept a combat role for the Bundeswehr," Henning Riecke, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, tells TIME. "But Germany should become more active in Afghanistan and allow troops to go into combat, if needed even in the south of the country. It's time for Germany to be more flexible in Afghanistan."

That's easier said than done. The legacy of Germany's Nazi past has led to military limits being written into the country's constitution. Germany was demilitarized after World War II ended in 1945, and the process of remilitarization has only developed over time. The Bundeswehr was formed in 1955, when West Germany joined NATO, but the constitution held that the role of Germany's armed forces would be strictly defensive. Initially, the German army's main job was to work with its NATO allies to prevent any attack that might come from Warsaw Pact members.

According to Dieter Krüger, a military historian at the Institute for Military History in Potsdam, it was only after France left NATO in 1966 that Germany's military role became stronger. "In the past, there was no idea of deploying German troops abroad, except in specific cases, like helping in natural disasters," he says. "Up until the end of the Cold War, Germany had a well-trained army, but it was more used to bureaucratic procedures."

Since the 1990s, after reunification, German forces have become more involved in military missions abroad, but there are caveats. The German parliament has to give the green light for any foreign deployment, which it usually does only after long debate. There are currently 247,000 soldiers enrolled in the Bundeswehr and German troops are now serving all over the world, in places such as Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Lebanon.

But some say the Bundeswehr, which is a conscript army, is too bureaucratic and ill-equipped to deal with the modern-day challenges of combat. "Germany's armed forces are often overstretched. There are too many bases in Germany, too many personnel and the equipment is often old-fashioned," says Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "There is long-overdue reform under way to make the Bundeswehr leaner. It should be easier to deploy forces quickly abroad," he adds, referring to far-reaching plans to modernize the army's equipment and scale back troop numbers.

In the meantime, General Schneiderhan may have to steel himself for more complaints. U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to beef up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, but will he be able to persuade NATO allies, including Germany, to increase their own efforts there? The German parliamentary troop mandate that limits the army mostly to peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts runs out in December, after the federal elections. When that happens, German soldiers could find that uncomfortable sleeping bags are the least of their problems.