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In Germany's Afghan Commitment, 'Splitting Hairs Won't Help: We Are At War'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels in a helicopter with German troops during a surprise visit to their base in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in April.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels in a helicopter with German troops during a surprise visit to their base in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in April.

The death toll is rising for German troops in Afghanistan. A battle with militants this week left three more soldiers dead, raising the total to 35. The mounting body count has prompted many Germans to question their country's "networked security approach," which is meant to favor civil projects over military might. Germans are asking, "Are we actually at war?" For answers, RFE/RL's Bernd Volkert spoke to Henning Riecke, an expert on German foreign and defense policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Henning Riecke
RFE/RL: After three German soldiers were killed in Afghanistan this week, the German parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Reinhold Robbe, said: "At the moment, we're not building bridges and we're not drilling wells. We are at war." At the same time, the German minister of defense still refuses to use the word "war" to describe Germany's actions in Afghanistan. Would you call it a war?

Henning Riecke:
What we have in Afghanistan is a war being conducted according to a new design. It is a mission that serves nation-building, but at the same time military operations are needed to fight insurgents that want to obstruct and destroy this very nation-building. This is not a declared war between states, but a war between armed forces and insurgents, which in Afghanistan is fought as a war.

To get involved in splitting hairs won't help anybody -- neither the advocates of the mission, nor its detractors. What we need is a little bit more honesty. And it is honest to say that we are stuck in a kind of war. That doesn't mean we have to retreat. The mission in Afghanistan can well be right, all in all. After all, we are acting in the context of NATO, as part of a commitment by the alliance. We're acting with a mandate by the United Nations and with the aim of creating a stable situation in Afghanistan. And to achieve this, we need to risk confrontations in which the adversaries trying to obstruct the mission have to be overcome. To abstain from this would be dishonest.

RFE/RL: With the situation on the ground getting tougher for soldiers, can't it be said that the German government's approach of favoring the civil aspects of the mission over the military ones has failed? And won't this question become even more pressing after the United States demands that Germany step up its troop commitment after its parliamentary elections in September?

What we have at the moment is a worsening of the security situation. But that still doesn't mean that the element of civil reconstruction upheld by Germany and its army has lost importance. Quite the contrary. In order for there to be long-term success in Afghanistan, it's essential that there be a perspective for stability in the Afghan state and economy.

To achieve this, construction work has to be done and has to be made permanent. What characterizes the German approach, on the one hand, is certainly the focus on the instruments needed to confront such a task. But on the other hand, it is also the strong reluctance to act with military force where necessary.

What the Americans are doing right now is to adopt this German approach, saying: "The Germans are right. The military is not enough; we also have to act with civil instruments." But then, the Americans really take both sides seriously, which again puts the Germans in a tight spot. Although it's the third-strongest supplier of troops in Afghanistan, the Germans are permanently coming under criticism in NATO because their caveats keep their soldiers in the area of the northern regional command and prevent them from engaging in those regions where the allied troops are fighting against the Taliban.

As to the buildup of an Afghan police force -- a task the Germans have been in charge of for several years now -- we didn't arrive at the results we wanted. Basically, we will have to do a little bit more on all fronts to make that approach that's so sacred to us -- the "networked security approach" -- effective. And if at that point, Germany gets in a tight spot, ultimately we'll have to show that we're ready to do more, even side by side with the Americans.

We shouldn't forget that Obama is a bit more European in his style of politics, looking everywhere for partners. But maybe at the same time, his frustration threshold is lower. His approach to politics is based on winning back allies. And if we let this part of his strategy fail by not doing more, then we'll also undermine Obama's position in the United States.

RFE/RL: What's your general view on the international mission in Afghanistan? If you had to take stock, what would it look like eight years after September 11, 2001?

To take stock is difficult, because the situation is very, very complex and multilayered. I believe that a lot has been achieved in Afghanistan, that perspectives for the future of the state have been opened up. But there's also been a lot of frustration among the Afghan population. First, because security hasn't been established all over the country -- quite the contrary. Second, because the new system is also permeated by corruption, with the old insiders among the new winners, with drug cultivation and related crime forming a substantive part of the economy.

So there is reason for frustration. We will have to improve on all levels, we will have to show some success. And it must be shown clearly that the people will gain a long-term advantage from the international presence. At the moment, this belief seems to get lost. So we have to step up our efforts.

To sum up, certainly, a lot of mistakes have been made, but it was right to approach this difficult task, because what happened in Afghanistan before 9/11 was unacceptable for several reasons -- first for the Afghans themselves, and then with respect to regional stability, but also with respect to the support for international terrorism. For that reason, the action taken against the Taliban government and the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan, in my view, was the right thing to do.

Now we will have to put reconstruction efforts on the right track, and we will have to provide stability. And this will only be possible with more engagement, not less. Only if we succeed in the civil aspects can the German soldiers be pulled out.

RFE/RL: With military issues like Afghanistan, as well as strategic ones like NATO and its relationship with Russia, Germany time and again comes across as somewhat vague. Is it still difficult for the Germans to clearly define what their national interests are?

In German foreign policy, the term "interest" is used only very reluctantly, because it sounds like putting your individual aims above the ones of allies and partners. What's important to the Germans are good and solid partnerships, and functioning multilateral institutions and organizations. In times of growing mutual interdependencies, what is sometimes difficult for the Germans is prioritizing and saying which areas are more important to them than the others.

But that doesn't mean the Germans don't have interests. Especially in the relationship with Russia, you can see clearly that a stable, reliable economic partnership -- most of all in the energy sector -- is in the strategic interest of the Germans, and that causes them to favor cooperation over confrontational strategies.

Being one of the big financial contributors to the European Union also results in the cost-benefit calculation we're displaying. Indeed, we have interests -- you can recognize them -- and not everyone outside likes them. For that reason, I'd say we're not driven by international politics. We do define what is in our interests, I believe. Only sometimes, one might wish we would champion them more forcefully.