Germany Puts Up Its Dukes?
Monday, February 1, 2010
The German government has slowly begun to accept the reality that, to save Afghanistan from the return of Taliban rule, some real fighting will have to take place.
At last Thursday’s Afghanistan conference in London, Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new government, presented Germany’s proposal for a revised strategic approach to the eight-year-old conflict. Westerwelle’s mission on behalf of the Merkel government was a sensitive one. The German public considers Afghanistan a Vietnam-style quagmire and supports a quick end to Germany’s military involvement in the Hindu Kush. At the same time, the German government faces persistent pressure from its NATO allies, particularly from the United States, to beef up its military contribution and, equally important, adopt a military strategy more in line with allied counterinsurgency plans.
Washington wants Berlin to sign on to its version of a modern counterinsurgency campaign, in which Western soldiers patrol Afghan villages and fight the Taliban alongside their Afghan comrades in an effort to “clear, hold, and build.” So far, Germany has been very reluctant to engage the enemy in open combat and has largely viewed its military effort in Afghanistan as something along the lines of a lightly armed development program. The German military had so many caveats on what it could and couldn’t do that, for all intents and purposes, local bandits and the Taliban had free reign in much of its area of responsibility in the north of Afghanistan.
In a break with past practices, Merkel is proposing to send 500 more troops to Afghanistan to train Afghan National Army soldiers in the field.
In a carefully crafted speech to the German parliament Wednesday, Chancellor Merkel presented her government’s approach to take back the momentum from the Taliban. Calling the London conference an opportunity for “setting the future course” of Afghanistan, the chancellor outlined her government’s five-point-plan to achieve stability and security for the Afghan people.
First, Merkel’s plan foresees an increase in the number of police trainers for Germany’s bilateral German-Afghan police training mission. Germany plans to increase its contingent of police trainers from 123 to 200 officers for the next two years, allowing it to train up to one-third of Afghanistan’s new police officers. This enlarged corps of German police trainers will also train Afghan police trainers, so the Afghan National Police can acquire the wherewithal to fulfill that mission on its own in the future. A second element in Germany’s plans is to launch a development offensive inside Regional Command-North (RC-N), Germany’s area of responsibility in Afghanistan. The government has pledged to nearly double its financial commitment to Afghanistan. Between 2010 and 2013, Germany will contribute some €430 million annually to improve the lives of some 6 million or so Afghans across RC-N, with key goals being the expansion of the network of roads and substantially increasing access to schooling for the children. Third, Merkel announced that Germany would provide €10 million annually over the next five years for the Afghanistan Reintegration Fund, with the aim of using the monies to bring moderate Taliban in from the cold.
Germany plans to increase its contingent of police trainers from 123 to 200 officers for the next two years, allowing it to train up to one-third of Afghanistan’s new police officers.
The fourth element of Germany’s new strategy demands that NATO members at London produce a set of concrete goals to be achieved before the Afghanistan mission can be concluded. The decisive criterion, Merkel said, will be the extent to which the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) should grow by 2011. If Berlin has it its way, the number of ANSF trained and ready by 2011 should be about 300,000 personnel. In short, Berlin wants the London conference to determine the final number of ANSF personnel required to hand over security to the Afghan government. At the same time, Germany wants the Afghan government under Hamid Karzai to commit to a credible development strategy harnessed by real structural reforms, such as eliminating corruption, improving the electoral process and combating the cultivation and trade of illegal drugs.
If this is all the chancellor had offered up, it would be reasonable for commentators and Germany’s NATO allies to suggest that this is all fine and good but hardly anything new from Berlin—just more of the same. And indeed, much of what Merkel offered will waste both effort and resources if there is no actual commitment to secure RC-N by military forces that can truly “clear and hold” so that real “building” can then take place.
On this front, there is something new.
In a break with past practices, the fifth element in Merkel’s proposed plan is to send 500 more troops to Afghanistan to train Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in the field, “partnering” with them operationally inside RC-N. This added deployment will increase the number of German troops available for training to 1,400 soldiers. In addition, Germany will also deploy an extra 350 forces, a so-called “flexible reserve,” to assist German and coalition troops during Afghanistan’s fall parliamentary elections and similar events.
Given the nature of the domestic debate, where recent polls indicate some 80 percent of the population opposes adding more troops, the size of the proposed troop increase is as disappointing as it is predictable.
Previous news reports had noted that Germany’s senior military leaders had requested some 1,500 additional troops to implement the government’s new strategy. The Ministry of Defense’s top civilian staff considered 1,000 extra soldiers a politically feasible compromise. So, clearly, the 500 to 850 additional troops Merkel proposes fall well short of what the military thinks is needed.
Of course, in this debate over troop levels, one has to remember that Germany’s is a parliamentary army that requires prior approval from the members of the Bundestag when deployed outside Germany. In other words, the additional 850 soldiers promised by the government will still need to be okayed by the German parliament. Given the nature of the domestic debate, where recent polls indicate some 80 percent of the population opposes adding more troops, the size of the increase is as disappointing as it is predictable.
That said, what should not be lost in the discussion over troop levels is the fact that the German military will soon be patrolling with their ANA counterparts. According to the spokesman for the German Federal Armed Forces Association, the presumption is that German trainers will be fighting side-by-side with their charges. Although this must appear to the thousands of Americans and other allied forces engaged in daily combat with the Taliban as a relatively small step forward by the Germans, there is no question that Merkel is making a decision that carries political risk for her young coalition government.
So far, Germany has been very reluctant to engage the enemy in open combat and has largely viewed its military effort in Afghanistan as something along the lines of a lightly armed development program.
The German goal, as put forward by Merkel, is to begin handing security off to the Afghans by early 2011—a date in line with the Obama administration’s own timeline for beginning to draw down its forces there—with a total handover to the Afghan government by 2014. Of course, setting deadlines and timelines is problematic when it comes to waging war against insurgents willing to wait their adversaries out. As commentators have repeatedly noted, when it comes to Afghanistan, “NATO has all the watches, while the Taliban have all the time.”
Nevertheless, the chancellor said the government will not commit to a specific date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Determining an artificial date by which to start the gradual drawdown of forces from Afghanistan would not be prudent, Merkel cautioned. In fact, Germany’s unilateral withdrawal would not be “a contribution to a responsible handover” but an example of “an irresponsible handover.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that Afghanistan is a litmus test for NATO’s relevance and that perhaps a more difficult test could not have been devised for the alliance in the post-Cold War world. Certainly, few in 2003, when NATO first decided to take responsibility for the international security force mission in Afghanistan, believed it would turn into the kind of mission it has. And certainly Germany in 2004 would never have accepted responsibility for its mission area in the north of Afghanistan if it believed that it would have to deal with an actual insurgency. But that is now the case. And while Germans would rather not be there, the German government has, to its credit, annually renewed the mandate for its troops to remain there as part of the International Security Assistance Force and ever so slowly begun to accept the reality that, if Afghanistan is to be saved from the return of Taliban rule, some real fighting will have to take place.
The German problem for NATO in Afghanistan, however, is that this “progress” may well be too little, too late.
Gary Schmitt is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies and Philipp Tomio is research assistant in AEI’s Center for Defense Studies.
FURTHER READING: Robert Haddick explained “What Afghanistan Can Learn from Colombia” to settle its security crisis, and Ambassador Richard Williamson underscored “Afghanistan’s Historic Election” last year. AEI’s Frederick Kagan discusses “Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban” and testified before Congress on “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.”
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.