German Perspective On Lessons Learned From Afghanistan – Analysis


By LtGen (Ret) Dr. Ulf von Krause

By 2012, the German Bundeswehr had been engaged in Afghanistan for ten years. The decision as to whether the Bundeswehr takes part in operations in an international context is primarily a responsibility of the Federal Government. However, armed operations undertaken by German forces always require the constitutional stamp of approval from the German Parliament (Bundestag) beforehand. The German Federal Constitutional Court clarified this through its decision in 1994.

Between November 2001 and January 2012, the Federal Government applied 22 times to the Bundestag for approval to Afghanistan mandates. The parliament accepted all of them. They related to two different missions: on the one hand, until 2008 Germany sent 100 soldiers of the Special Forces to the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan; on the other hand, Germany has contributed by now substantially to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Escalation with Regard to Number of Troops, Area of Operation, Equipment and Mission Type

Over time, the German participation in ISAF escalated in terms of the number of troops, the area of operation, the military equipment deployed and the character of the operation. Starting in 2002 with 1,200 military personal deployed in Kabul and restricted to the Greater Kabul Area the number of troops grew to a maximum of 5,350 in 2011. They are meanwhile deployed mainly in the Northern Region of Afghanistan where Germany, in addition, has the responsibility for commanding all coalition forces in that area. In January 2012, a revised mandate brought – for the first time in 10 years –a slight reduction of the authorized strength of German troops to 4,900.

The area of operation for German forces enlarged gradually from the Kabul area to the entire Northern Region, in specific situations even to the whole country. At the beginning equipment and armament of the forces comprised only light arms and mainly unarmored vehicles. Over the years, the German government added mechanized infantry combat vehicles, Tornado reconnaissance aircraft and artillery to the assets of its forces. Urgently needed combat helicopters could not been delivered nationally but were made available by US forces.

The prevailing operations during the first years of the mission were patrols for surveillance and liaison with local authorities and the population. Consequently, the rules of engagement allowed only self-defense in the case of direct attacks as long as those were enduring. If an opponent stopped his attack, the German troops had to cease fire even if they watched him preparing for the next attack. Later on fighting of insurgents became more and more important. Gradually but with a significant time lag the rules of engagement reflected this changing situation. From 2007-2010 German Tornados flew reconnaissance missions over all of Afghanistan. In 2008, German forces took over the task of a Quick Reaction Force for the Northern Region, a typical combat mission. After 2010 German troops were more and more engaged in combat operations to clear areas of insurgents.

Multilateralism as an Attribute of German Foreign Policy

These empirical findings lead to the question of how to explain such an escalation of the German contribution to ISAF. As a first approach to an answer one has to keep in mind that since World War II, in Germany a culture of a multilateral oriented foreign policy developed. In addition, German forces in Afghanistan are part of an international alliance of about 50 nations which have contributed troops. Therefore, from the very beginning the German Federal Government as well as the Bundestag always had to make their decisions in an international context.

For the first decision to contribute to OEF the overreaching reasoning was a promise of “unlimited solidarity” made by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to the United States that he had expressed in a parliamentary debate on 12 September 2001, one day after the attack on the World Trade Center. The spokespersons of all factions of the Bundestag had endorsed this declaration. Six weeks later the Chancellor, however, needed his strongest instrument to get parliamentary approval for his decision to contribute to OEF – he had to call for a vote of confidence. This was mainly due to the deep aversion of using military force as an instrument of politics, which is deeply rooted in the German national political culture and which was especially part of the self-conception of the Greens who were partners in the coalition. The fact that the NATO Council had invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty on 12 September 2001 – without any consequences with regard to military measures – did not play a perceptible role in this debate.

Another six weeks later again multilateral aspects prevailed in the German decision to contribute to ISAF. Germany had hosted the UN Bonn conference, the Chancellor wanted to exploit the positive image of the conference success. In addition, Germany had been striving towards a permanent seat in the UN Security Council since 1992. Therefore, the German Government did not want to reject the request of the UN for contributions to ISAF.

NATO took over the lead for ISAF in 2003 – actually on the request of Germany who was in the leading position at that time and who needed a replacement in this role. The alliance consequently used this as a chance for a practical demonstration of its ability as an organizational framework for military actions “out of area” which had been inaccessible in the political debates before. From then on, the German justification for its military engagement changed. It was now “Solidarity with NATO” instead of “Solidarity with the US”. The demands for increasing military strength by NATO –mainly driven by the US – were one substantial factor for the enlargement of the German contributions. In addition, the reorientation at the beginning of 2012 that led towards first steps of reducing the military strength was mainly multilaterally driven. NATO as well as Germany followed the decision of President Obama to withdraw the combat troops from Afghanistan by end of 2014.

To sum up: the German decisions were not based on specific German interests (which have not yet been defined) but by expectations of allies and partners. It was rather assumed that the interests of the alliance were identical with German interests.

Discrepancy between Political Goals and Military Objectives, and between Civilian and Military Resources

According to Clausewitz, the political goals for the use of military force determine the military objectives, which have to serve the political goals. From the beginning there was a discrepancy for ISAF: the German government defined the political goal as to “make a substantial contribution to the implementing of the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan which had started in the Bonn conference”. The military objective at the beginning was limited in numbers and the respective area of operation. Since the political goal was rather ambitious and “unlimited”, it generated pressure to enlarge the military efforts. Thus, the total ISAF strength as well as the German contingent was constantly increased and the area of operation expanded.

In addition, the goals of the partners of the coalition were differing. While ISAF should be a “stabilization mission”, the US-led OEF was a combat mission. Two different military operations in the same area are very problematic, not only from a military point of view but also politically. The “rough warfare” which the US chose for OEF led to substantial “collateral damage” amongst the population. It jeopardized ISAF’s goal to foster reconciliation and the coalition forces were losing the backing of the population. Therefore, the security situation eroded and the field commanders demanded additional military means to cope with a deteriorating situation.

To achieve the political goal of state building the military instrument can only contribute a small portion. The main thrust must come from civilian means such as diplomacy, economic aid or assistance in building up societal and state structures. This knowledge is well reflected in different strategic concepts, the first one to come from Germany. The so-called “Networked Security” was defined in the German White Paper 2006. It was introduced into the strategic discussion within NATO where it was adopted as “Comprehensive Approach” on the Bucharest Summit in 2008. The implementation of these conceptual goals, however, falls far behind. Measured by the input of resources, both personal and financial means, more than 70 % of the resources – not only in Germany – raised for Afghanistan are spent for the military, less than 30 % for civilian purposes. The conceptual ideas would demand just the opposite.

It was not before the end of 2009 that the international community defined the concept of handing over responsibility to the Afghan authorities as a political goal, which seems for the first time to be achievable militarily. This, however, is nothing else than an exit option, thus abandoning many of the ambitious goals of the past.

Whitewashing the Mission by German Politics – “This is not a War”

In Germany, where the definition of goals and objectives had been initially rather vague and with some discrepancies the Federal Government made substantial efforts to enunciate the goals for participation in the Afghanistan missions. In so-called “Afghanistan Concepts” –the first one was edited 2003 which is two years after the decision to engage – the government phrased very ambitious and partly unrealistic goals. In a country with traditionally decentralized societal structures, characterized after decades of civil war by poverty, deep ethnic and religious cleavages, a medieval society in the countryside and an entire breakdown of state structures it appears somewhat naive to name goals such as building a strong central government, modernizing society or democratization in a western sense.

However, politics in Germany needed such “glorified” goals to justify the military operation to a society with the deep conviction of a “civilian power”. Therefore, the German population was deluded by calling it a stabilization mission with “armed developers” instead of military men and women which was supported by media coverage in the first years. After NATO- responsibility for ISAF expanded in 2006 to the whole country, the distinction between OEF and ISAF diminished within NATO. Only in Germany, the Federal Government insisted in internal debates on the position that ISAF was not a combat mission because such operations were conducted by OEF.

In addition, German politicians refused to use a terminology, which could get in conflict with the desired image of a stabilization mission. For the Federal Government German soldiers were not in a “war”. This had negative effects for the soldiers because their legal status was in a grey zone, their equipment was partly not adequate and the rules of engagement were by 2009 not tailored to their mission. Beginning in 2008 the media brought severe incidents into the awareness of the population, which indicated that German soldiers were by no means “armed developers” but were fighting, dying and also killing in Afghanistan. The highlight of public attention was the bombing of two fuel trucks near Kundus on 5 September 2009 in which a large number of people died, including children. This forced the government to stop its whitewashing of the mission and to acknowledge that the Bundeswehr was fighting in a non-international armed conflict. Defense Minister zu Guttenberg and Chancellor Merkel were even using the word “war”.

Parliamentary Army vs. Escalation

In the German society exists the strong feeling that the Bundeswehr should only be engaged in defending its own country. Against this background and given the legal situation in Germany where a lot of power is invested the Bundestag, the question arises why the German parliament did not make any visible effort to slow down the escalation of the German military engagement. How could the Federal Government – cross-linked in diverse multilateral structures of International Organizations like UN, NATO or EU – push through its decisions in all 22 mandates in spite of massive resistance within the population toward the mission.

Here is the answer: although Germany has a Parliamentary Army, the Federal Government is factually dominating the decision processes even in parliament.

First, in the German parliamentarian system the control effort of coalition factions over “their” government is not very strong. Control functions are more the domain of the opposition. In times of a “Grand Coalition”, however, which Germany had for quite a period of time, the opposition is rather weak. And after a change of the majority ratio in parliament it takes some time before factions revise positions which they had taken when supporting a government. Therefore, a “Very Grand Coalition” has approved most mandates so far.

Second, the government has the power of agenda setting. It is drafting the mandates and sometimes sets very narrow time limits for parliamentary discussions; the Bundestag can only approve or reject the draft without altering the wording (although in the parliamentary practice the parliament has developed some ways of influencing the mandate by consultations in advance, by protocol notes or by time limits).

Third, the government has a substantial information advantage over the parliamentarians not least due to military confidentiality.

Fourth, the Bundestag in mandate debates has so far gotten lost in details rather than conducting a strategic discussion of the goals of German security policy. There have been, for example, no parliamentary hearings on such issues, as are normal in the US Congress. Therefore, in spite of the formal rather strong power of the Bundestag, there are no clear “parliamentarian skid marks” visible in the German decision processes.

Lessons Learned from the Afghanistan Case

What are the lessons learned from the ten-year adventure of German Afghanistan missions? The first one is that Germany has to define its own security interests. This should take place in a discourse between politics, the academia and societal groups. As a result, the decision makers would have a benchmark when discussing an eventual involvement in a military conflict. It is for example hard to explain why German forces are involved in Afghanistan, Germany on the other hand refused to contribute to the NATO mission in Libya.

The second lesson refers to the first decision on military involvement. The Afghanistan conflict makes it very clear that such a first decision is crucial. It shows clearly that having slid into a conflict without proper analysis, having no clear goals and objectives, there is a great danger for an escalation and it is problematic to exit. Therefore, decision makers must take the necessary time to evaluate carefully the conditions, define the political goals and the military objectives, make sure that the resources needed are available and will be for the duration of the mission, and spell out exit conditions, i.e. criteria for success or failure. These necessary steps of mission preparation must be gone through even if expectations of allies and partners and time pressure seem to call for immediate decisions.

Thirdly, the German Bundestag should develop more critical parliamentary control in such questions concerning peace and war. This should include more assertiveness against governmental pressure, persistence in demanding sufficient information from the government and development of procedures for a strategic debate of security issues.

Fourth, the Federal Government and the Bundestag should learn from the Afghanistan case that they can not whitewash the character of a military mission with regard to a perceived mood in the population. Investigative journalism will bring the reality to light and politicians will loose credibility if they had tried to disguise their genuine motives.

Afghanistan after 2014

Finally, looking into the crystal ball, what are the perspectives for the Afghanistan mission after 2014? President Obama decided – and Germany as well as NATO followed this decision – to withdraw the combat troops by end of 2014. Whatever this means. By that timeline, Afghan security forces, i.e. Afghan National Army and Afghan Police Force, should be able to take care of the security in their country. In the latest German mandate, the reduction plan for 2012, is conditioned by the clause “if the situation allows”. And if not? The riots in Afghanistan after the burning of Koran books by US soldiers and the hasty withdrawal of German troops from Taloqan emphasize the importance of this question.

A further question is whether coalition forces engaged in partnering missions, i.e. accompanying Afghan units in combat missions, are combat troops and whether they will stay beyond 2014? On the other hand, will coalition forces with the primary task to train Afghans participate in fighting if the situation demands it? These questions show that militarily issues are still quite nebulous.

Yet, the announcement of withdrawal should enhance the use of non- military instruments. This would be a step forward in implementing the Comprehensive Approach NATO agreed on several years ago. The pledges of the international community made at the Bonn Conference in 2012 sound promising with this regard.

LtGen (ret), German Bundeswehr, Dr. Ulf von Krause was born in 1944. He served from 1963 to 2005 in the Bundeswehr and retired as a Lieutenant General. 1972-1977 he studied economics and management at the universities in Bonn and Cologne, Germany, and published occasionally in the area of military economics. After retirement, he studied political sciences at the Distance Teaching University in Hagen, Germany. Before writing his Afghanistan analysis he published a book titled “Mehrebenengovernance in der EU – Deutsche Mitwirkung an der Rechtsetzung” (Multi Level Governance in the EU – German Participation in Legislation”.

This article is based on the book by the author “Die Afghanistaneinsaetze der Bundeswehr – Politischer Entscheidungsprozess mit Eskalationsdynamik“ (The Afghanistan Missions of Bundeswehr – Political Decision Process with Escalation Dynamics“), published 2011 in Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden, Germany. For evidence of statements in this article reference to the book would be necessary.

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