Is Germany at War?

Reading the strongest media voice of the German left, die tageszeitung (taz), one would have no doubt that the German army is involved in a serious combat mission in Afghanistan. The word Krieg (war) is used routinely by the taz editors in their highly critical coverage of the Bundeswehr’s activities at home and abroad. Ironically, the strident anti-militarism of the taz has turned it into one of the better sources for military news in Germany; few publications register – and condemn – new developments within the army as swiftly as this Berlin daily.

By contrast, Minister of Defense Franz Josef Jung avoids the term “war” at all costs. The German deployment in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, has been sold to a skeptical public as an exercise in state-building. And indeed, the Bundeswehr’s parliamentary mandate identifies the “main emphasis of the German engagement” as the “civilian reconstruction of Afghanistan.”[1]

Until recently, the Germans’ self-identified missions were to train police in the northern, Tajik-dominated region of Kunduz, and otherwise to provide a secure environment for various construction projects around the north, such as much-celebrated girls’ schools in Char Gul Tepa and Faizabad. German rules of engagement forbade initiating action against hostile combatants; casualties resulted mainly from crashing vehicles or roadside bombs. As recently as February 2008, the Berlin government flatly rejected suggestions by NATO allies, and the NATO Secretary-General, that it was time to send German troops southward.[2]

Yet war has come to the Germans anyway. The fragile social peace of the Kunduz region has given way to the same kinds of Taliban violence that have long bedeviled the south. Roadside IEDs are deadlier than ever; suicide bombers strike as German patrols pass by; rockets and mortar grenades rain into German encampments. Taliban militants have even succeeded drawing Germans into deadly firefights.

Much of the violence appears carefully targeted, with the intent of demoralizing public opinion back in Germany – witness the suicide attack outside the German embassy in Kabul in January 2009. Even so, the violence is not merely directed at the sheer presence of German soldiers, but at German plans to build long-term productive infrastructure for the modernization and development of Afghanistan. “There are people who do not want us drilling wells. And the enemy stops at nothing to prevent us from doing so,” observed Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Inspector General of the Bundeswehr, in April 2008.[3]

The Bundeswehr’s response has been incremental, yet the net result is a transformation of the German presence on the ground. In July 2008, the Bundeswehr deployed its first combat unit in the north, replacing the Norwegians as the operators of a 200-man Quick Reaction Force. Last fall, the German parliament agreed to raise the maximum force level of soldiers from 3,500 to 4,500. Other investments in German fighting capacity can now be brought to bear: a new five-satellite network with night-vision capability has catapulted the Bundeswehr into the top leagues of strategic reconnaissance.[4]

There are still weak spots in terms of equipment. Most grievously, the Bundeswehr lacks the helicopters to conduct combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions. The security situation in Kunduz province remains tenuous; German forces are not truly in control of the countryside outside their bases. Fortunately, clearing operations are under way. In July 2009, 300 soldiers took part in what amounted to the German army’s first ground offensive since 1945, acting as support troops to a much larger Afghan force.[5]

So yes, Germany is at war. And the public recognizes this: asked ten months ago whether the Bundeswehr was engaged in a “humanitarian mission” or a “war mission,” 57% of respondents said “war” and 7% said “both.”[6] And yet the mainstream German parties do their best to play down the conflict, keeping Afghanistan out of the limelight.

Such circumspection may be understandable for the time being, with federal elections due on September 27; the governing coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) fears that talk of war will redound to The Left (Die Linke). This relative newcomer to German politics, a heterogeneous mix of ex-communists and disaffected Social Democrats, enjoyed spectacular gains in last Sunday’s state elections in Saxony, Thuringia, and the Saarland.[7] The Left has the luxury of not expecting to govern on the federal level any time soon, and it loudly advocates an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. This anti-war stance may have assisted in the party’s explosive rise in the Saarland (21.3% of the vote, up from 2.3% in 2005). Several of Germany’s 34 war casualties have come from a paratrooper unit based in Zweibrücken, just across the state line in Rheinland-Pfalz.[8]

On balance, the mainstream parties can probably still keep the war from dominating the federal elections – barring a wildcard, such as an act of terrorist violence on German soil. Angela Merkel’s CDU is a heavy favorite to return to government, in alliance with the Free Democrats (FDP) and if necessary with the tacit support of the Greens. Forming a cabinet could take a month or more.

But by the end of the year, with a new cabinet in place, Chancellor Merkel will surely have to find some way to address the glaring credibility gap at the heart of Germany’s security policy. Last October, fully 82% of Germans felt the Berlin government was concealing the truth about Afghanistan.[9] Discomfort over the mission has only grown since then. In September 2005, 34% of Germans favored a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan; in September 2007, it was 52%. By July 2009, as many as 69% had come to favor a withdrawal “as soon as possible.”[10]

An open, and genuinely open-ended, political debate about Germany’s overseas military missions might bring disappointing results for Berlin’s allies. Isolationist sentiment – an eagerness to raise the barricades of Fortress Europe – runs deep in Germany. Respondents on news websites often depict German military efforts as a kind of sullen tribute to the almighty United States. It is hazardous to cherry-pick among publicly posted comments, but the following observation appears to typify one important strand of public opinion:

As a German I just don’t get the idea why German troops are fighting in Afghanistan. That country is a few thousand kilometers away. And their people haven’t done anything against us. So why do we have to fight because of a failed British/American Middle East policy?[11]

Such uncertainty may well reflect the inadequacy of Berlin’s information policy. But the German media responded with mockery to one early attempt to ground the conflict in realist terms. In 2002, then-defense minister Peter Struck claimed that “the security of Germany is defended in the Hindu Kush, too.”[12] Whether or not Struck’s point is persuasive, few Germans appear willing to assess this or other geopolitical arguments on their own merits. What are Germany’s worldwide interests – economic, financial, strategic? What is the point of NATO, and does Germany benefit from participating in it? Aside from self-defense, is there any reason to have an army at all? Rather than discouraging debate on these fundamental questions, the Merkel government should invite it.

Seventy years to the day after the German invasion of Poland, readers may find comfort in the overwhelming rejection of militarism on display in the Berlin Republic. But there is a world of difference between principled, thoughtful pacifism and the kind of snobbish, intellectually lazy neo-isolationism currently in vogue in Germany.

In any event, the gaping disconnect between the Bundeswehr and the rest of German society is hardly a healthy development. Only 20% of eligible men are still drafted (a further 20% go into civilian service), rendering the old West German ideal of “citizens in uniform” obsolete.[13] To be sure, comparable trends can be seen in the United States: the coalescence of a “warrior caste” from less privileged social strata; the dearth of military experience among members of Congress. But in Germany, ignorance of military affairs is worn as a badge of pride in many educated circles. One can at least hope that after the election, the Merkel government will articulate its own compelling reasons to stay in Afghanistan, or demand that the war’s opponents provide still more compelling reasons to pull out.

Whether or not the war against the Taliban is a necessary (and winnable) conflict for the West, the people of Afghanistan deserve to be taken seriously. The Bundeswehr has performed as well as it could against the Taliban, given the lack of public understanding and support at home. What it achieves in Afghanistan from here on out will depend upon whether German opinion can move beyond fatalism, or cynicism, or just plain indifference.


[1] Antrag der Bundesregierung, “Fortsetzung der Beteiligung bewaffneter deutscher Streitkräfte…,” Oct. 7, 2008 (Deutscher Bundestag, 16. Wahlperiode, Drucksache 16/10473), p. 5.

[2] For a scathing analysis of the German government’s position at the time, see Stefan Theil, “Hiding Behind the Americans,” Newsweek, Feb. 25, 2008.

[3] Thomas Wiegold, interview with Wolfgang Schneiderhan, “Wir sind keine Feiglinge,” FOCUS, April 14, 2008, pp. 28-29. Translation by BBC Monitoring Europe.

[4] Nicholas Fiorenza, “Fast Intel with SAR-Lupe,” Defense Technology International, Vol. 2, No. 9 (Nov. 1, 2008).

[5] Elizabeth Pond, “Germany’s combat revival,” The Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 7, 2009, p. 9.

[6] Alexander Szandar, “Gefallen für den Frieden. Verteidigungsminister Franz Josef Jung beschönigt die Realität des Afghanistan-Einsatzes,” Der Spiegel Nr. 44/2008 (Oct. 27, 2008), p. 132. Poll conducted by TNS Forschung. Szandar’s article is available through the SPIEGEL ONLINE archives at http://wissen.spiegel.de/wissen/start/home.html

[7] For election results, see http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,645724,00.html

[8] To be sure, other local factors weighed heavily, above all the fact that The Left’s leader, Oskar Lafontaine, is a native Saarländer who served as the state’s Minister-President while still a member of the SPD.

[9] Szandar, “Gefallen für den Frieden,” as above. See also the cynical remarks on Die Zeit’s web site on whether German politicians were being “cowardly” about the topic of Afghanistan: http://kommentare.zeit.de/commentsection/url/online/2009/35/afghanistan-jung-wahlkampf

[10] First two figures: Forsa poll published in Stern; report carried by BBC Monitoring Europe, Sept. 12, 2007. Third figure: Infratest poll, available from “Statista – das Statistik-Portal,” http://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/13104/umfrage/meinung-zum-verbleib-der-bundeswehr-in-afghanistan/

[11] Comment (the very first chronologically) in response to “Germany’s foreign policy / The Berlin Stonewall,” The Economist, posted October 30, 2008 on economist.com. I did not change the wording, but I did correct the punctuation so that readers were not distracted by such issues.

[12] Although the phrase is used commonly, it is difficult to track down the text of the original source – a press conference given by Struck on Dec. 5, 2002. See Klaus Becher, “German Forces in International Military Operations,” Orbis, Summer 2004, 397-408. doi:10.1016/j.orbis.2004.04.003

[13] Michael Wolffsohn, “Die Bundeswehr ist eine Unterschichtenarmee,” Die Welt, Aug. 21, 2009. Wolffsohn is a professor of history at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.