The War in Afghanistan: A View from Berlin

The Reichtag
The Reichtag

In the often-parochial policy debates inside the Beltway, it is often forgotten that US actions more than words have significance for its allies.  Decisions by the Administration and Congress about key weapons programs –F-35, tanker, C-17 PBLs, etc – have decisive significance for allies as well.  This consideration rarely surfaces in the “policy debate” which passes for such inside the Beltway.

Nowhere is this more true than in the step up of the war in Afghanistan.  This is a war, not a security operation.  First, the war, and then the security operation can succeed and then the possible reconstruction of the regions, and perhaps an Afghan state.   That is the most likely sequence of events.

This effort is re-shaping allied militaries and the role of those militaries within their national agendas.  The UK, France, and Germany are the three key NATO states all undergoing change of one sort of another associated with the Afghan engagement.

Recently. I had a chance to listen to and talk with a German officer involved in Afghan operations with the Bundeswehr.  What was most striking in this conversation was the simple point that the engagement was so central to the future evolution of the role of the military within his country’s future global policies.  It has been evident for some time that the Bundeswehr has been reshaped to engage in support operations abroad, which indeed, are the most likely and compelling needs for the Alliance.  But to do so in an era of “hybrid war” means that you can not simply show up as lightly armed policeman.  Peacekeeping via such a model is difficult in the era of hybrid war.

The officer discussed his experiences in Afghanistan.  He emphasized the scale of the territory within which German forces were engaged.  “The Northern province is half the size of Germany and we are trying to bring security with a few thousand German and Afghan soldiers.  This meant that we could move troops around as on a chessboard; when we left one area we left areas for the insurgents to come back.”

The officer went on to argue for more troops and more policeman.  “I think that we need less trainers from Europe than policeman to provide training to the Afghans and salaries to provide for the newly trained policeman.  Once we can deliver security, we can then start the building process.”

The officer also emphasized the positive prospects.  “Much of Afghanistan is stabilized; but what remains unstable can pose a threat to the rest.”

He argued that “German troops need to stay longer and to learn more about the country to do an effective job; 4-6 month deployments are simply not long enough.”

The officer also added that he believed that providing for specialized COIN training in place of regular combat training was a mistake.  “We need to start with significant conventional combat training experience.  Adding 6 months of COIN training on top of that makes sense, but not as a substitute for the conventional combat training.  It is important for the insurgents to understand they are facing overwhelming force, not simply COIN specialists.”

With regard to overwhelming force, the officer underscored the significance of air power.  “Because of the terrain and the range of territory covered, mobility is central.  And air strikes in support of ground operations are simply indispensible.  I am not taking organic firepower of the sort I would have in a conventional operation, so I need to rely on airpower.”

When asked how airpower was deployed in his operations, he emphasized the close relationship with the USAF.  “We use Rover and JTAC to ensure close coordination with the USAF.  We relied on bombers, tactical air and sometimes on UAVs to provide for joint fires.”


***Posted February 28th, 2010