The German experience in Afghanistan

This continues my ongoing review of Hynek and Marton’s book on state-building in Afghanistan.

The Germans are the Rodney Dangerfield of the current Afghan War.  They currently comprise the third largest contingent of troops in ISAF (after the U.S. and UK) and yet, at least based on press reporting here in the U.S., the only things that come to mind upon hearing of the German contribution to the war effort are ridiculous national caveats, incompetent police training, and fat, beer swilling soldiers.  Yet, as Timo Behr describes in his chapter on Germany’s experience in Regional Command North (RC-N), it’s much more complicated than that.

While I’m still not yet half way through the Hynek and Marton book it’s clear there are some overarching themes that, I suspect, will be noted by all the participants and while they’ve been said before, it’s worth bringing them forward again because 1) they’re really, really important and 2) by mentioning them up front I can save you (and me) the pain of sounding like a broken record as I describe each author’s work and focus on differences.

I believe it was Gen. Petreus who said that COIN was the ‘graduate level of war’ to which Col. Gentile took some offense saying that all war is complicated.  As I read through this book I think I’m getting a different view of that quote.  In a conventional war you get feedback about how well or poorly you’re doing fairly quickly.  After all, after Stalingrad I don’t think there were too many people in the world saying “Yep, now the Germans have the Russians exactly where they want them.”  In insurgenies (or at least in Afghansitan) such feedback may have been available but it’s much harder to get at than identifying land under your control or comparing factors of combat power.  As a result the coalition went throught three, broad, phases in Afghanistan.  From roughly 2002 to 2006, everyone was in victory lap mode.  The Taliban were beat and the thinking was generally that the role of the coalition would consist of some general mopping up of the ‘dead enders’ and then full swing into reconstruction/peace-keeping mode.  From 2006 to 2009 the realization gradually began to dawn that this was, in fact, still a serious conflict.  Nations began flailing about trying to figure out how to respond but often swinging to combat heavy responses.  Beginning sometime in 2009 was the general adoption of some variation of COIN theory among the partners along with the near universal desire to get the hell out of the country sooner rather than later.  Those two positions really are incompatable (at least as I understand COIN theory) but might allow the partners to cobble together a stable enough country to avoid blame among their domestic constituents when Afghanistan devolves back into the hot mess of civil war and choas it seems headed for.

But, onto the Germans.

Germany was in an interesting political position at the start of the Afghan War.  Consolidating its position as an economic powerhouse of the EU, its WWII legacy had it seriously lagging behind in terms of military power projection. The damage (perceived or real) among many European nations over disputes regarding the Iraq War made many nations desirous of getting back in favor with the U.S. and Afghanistan appeared to offer an ‘easy’ opportunity to do so.  Germany began their mission with an emphasis on development projects and police training, neither of which did much good.  Shockingly (but, not uniquely) the first effort to evaluate Germany’s reconstruction efforts didn’t even get scheduled until the end of 2010, a full nine years after the conflict began.  The Germans also weren’t able to produce large quantities of high quality police officers.  This isn’t really a German problem as nobody has been able to produce large numbers of high quality Afghan police forces but the German strategy was to focus on quality at the expense of quantity while the American strategy was the opposite.

Given German ambiguity towards its military generally and any operation which could be construed as ‘offensive’, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s initial rules of engagement upon moving into Kunduz Province were restrictive and limited to self defense only.  During the initial years of calm after the fall of the Taliban, this seemed like a good strategy.  Unfortunately, that strategy fundimentally misunderstood what was going on in Kunduz and Afghanistan as a whole.  Rather than the country returning to some natural state of peace, insurgents of all stripes were regrouping.

In May of 2007, insurgents conducted a suicide attack which killed several Bundeswehr soldiers.  Behr describes the German reaction as:

…a reduction of Bendeswehr patrols to a minimum and a concentration on force protection.  Patrols only resumed gradually throughout summer 2007, while the emphasis remained on de-escalation and conflict avoidance.

In other words, exactly what the Taliban would have hoped for.

Just how laid back the Germans were in Afghanistan is highlighted by the astounding fact that they did not see their frist ‘official’ kill of an insurgent until August of 2008!  Further, they did not conduct any coordinated offensive operations until July of 2009.

Behr does a nice job of describing how Germany’s domestic political scene is still working through the idea that their military may become involved in conflicts outside of their borders.  Both the government system and the population seem to struggle with the idea through a mix of denialism, wishful thinking and general unease.  Whether Afghanistan represents birthing pains for a new German concept of their role in the world or the beginning of a retrenchment remains to be seen.

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