Germany Comes to Terms With Its New War

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AP Photo / German Army / Bundeswehr / Steffen Kugler

German soldiers accompany the coffin of a killed comrade, one of three killed German ISAF soldiers, at the airport of Termez, Uzbekistan, on Sunday, April 4, 2010.

Wiping away tears, German troops watched as coffins bearing the bodies of three of their fellow soldiers were driven through the German military base in northern Afghanistan last weekend. The men, aged 25, 28 and 35, had been killed in a fire-fight with Taliban militants on April 2 in the Char Darah district of Kunduz province, which has become increasingly violent in recent months. "We had all hoped this day would never come," Brigadier General Frank Leidenberger said at the ceremony. But he struck a defiant note when he added: "We will fight on and we will win."

Back in Germany, the attack served as a stark reminder of the dangers facing German troops in Afghanistan. The latest deaths bring the number of German soldiers killed in the NATO-led mission to 39 since the Afghan invasion of 2001. For Germany's new Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who cut short a holiday in South Africa to fly home following the attack, it marked the first time he had to offer condolences to the relatives of fallen soldiers — a grim task for a young, up-and-coming minister. While expressing his deep regret for the deaths, zu Guttenberg broke a long-held taboo by declaring that Germany was indeed at war in Afghanistan — confirming a reality on the ground that most Germans haven't been ready to stomach. "Even if not everyone likes it, regarding what happens in parts of Afghanistan, one can colloquially refer to it as war," he said on April 4, choosing his words carefully.

Until now, Chancellor Angela Merkel's new center-right government has steered clear of calling the Afghan mission a "war," given the German public's deep loathing of the concept. But this started to change in February when the government came up with a new way of describing its mission, saying German troops were now engaged in a "non-international armed conflict." Then came zu Guttenberg's admission that the 4,300 German soldiers currently on the ground are actually engaged in what the rest of the world generally considers a war. "In the past, the Afghan mission was sold to Germans as a civilian reconstruction mission but in reality it's a war," says Citha Maass, an Afghan analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Zu Guttenberg's tenatitive utterance of the "W" word unleashed a heated debate in the German media. The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper carried the headline "German Army in Afghanistan: At War," while the Süddeutsche newspaper praised the Defense Minister for his honesty, but posed the question: "What does war mean?" War is a tricky subject in Germany. According to the Defense Ministry, German soldiers are forbidden to engage in a "war of aggression" under the German constitution. Each foreign mission that includes the Bundeswehr — the German parliamentary army — is thus governed by a Bundestag mandate. In the case of Afghanistan, "proportional" military force can be used but German soldiers must adhere to NATO's rules of engagement.

But the government's decision to redefine the mission as a "non-international armed conflict" changes things, says Christian Schaller, a legal expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Now, German soldiers will be operating within a clearer legal framework. For example, the troops will be able to use military force to fight against insurgents under international humanitarian law. But there could also be tougher penalties. "Germany's Code of Crimes Against International Law will apply, and in extreme cases, German soldiers could be prosecuted for war crimes," Schaller says.

The deadly battle last week also sparked a fierce row in Germany over the lack of military equipment and training for soldiers in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, retired General Harald Kujat, formerly the highest-ranking German soldier and chairman of the NATO Military Committee, accused the government of "ignorance regarding the military's needs," especially when it comes to manpower and equipment. Likewise, Reinhold Robbe, the outgoing parliamentary ombudsman for the armed forces, told the Bild newspaper on Tuesday that members of the paratrooper unit that came under attack in Kunduz had previously complained to him about their "patchy" training. "Drivers are being deployed who are not properly trained on armored vehicles until after they arrive in Afghanistan," he said. Germany's Armed Forces Association has also complained about the shortage of military helicopters and vehicles in Afghanistan, saying that German troops often have to rely on U.S. helicopter support in Kunduz.

However, a Defense Ministry spokesman says the deaths of the soldiers in Kunduz had nothing to do with poor equipment or bad training. "Our soldiers were well-trained — they were ambushed," said the spokesman, who declined to give his name as per policy. As part of a new parliamentary mandate, which was passed by the Bundestag in February, German troop levels in Afghanistan will also increase from 4,500 to 5,350 later this year. (Germany is already the third-largest troop contributor after the U.S. and Britain.) The new mandate places a heavier emphasis on civilian reconstruction projects and the training of Afghan soldiers, which will make German soldiers more visible — and potentially easier targets.

By finally referring to the "war" in Afghanistan, the government knows only too well that the Afghan mission is becoming deadlier. But on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned against a hasty withdrawal, saying: "If we were to retreat on the spur of the moment now, Afghanistan would return to being a shelter for world terrorism in a very short time." The question remains, though: How many more casualties will an increasingly skeptical German public tolerate?