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Germany: Support For Deployment High Despite Deteriorating Morale

Reports indicate the morale of the German armed forces is falling, even as Berlin continues to assume military responsibilities in international crisis areas. At the same time, however, opinion polls suggest that support for Germany's participation in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan remains strong, despite the recent deaths of two German soldiers serving there.

Munich, 14 march 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent opinion polls indicate that about 80 percent of Germans support the continued deployment of the country's armed forces to Afghanistan, the Balkans, and other international hot spots.

The polls say most Germans believe their country has a responsibility to be involved in such crises as a leading member of the European community. The most significant opposition to a German role in places such as Afghanistan comes from the Party of Democratic Socialism -- the successor party to the East German Communist Party.

At the same time, however, there is growing concern over reports of falling morale in the German armed forces as a whole, especially among the 10,000 soldiers serving abroad.

Morale problems have been publicized in two recent official reports. The latest, published this week, was presented by Wilfried Penner, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces. It consists of complaints submitted to him last year by more than 5,000 members of the German armed forces stationed at home and abroad.

The other report came from Brigadier-General Dieter Loechel, who is a senior aide to the German military chief of staff. His conclusions were drawn from interviews with military commanders and a survey of almost 3,000 soldiers of all ranks. His report also covers soldiers in domestic posts and those serving abroad.

Both reports say morale has plunged to such depths that German troops are losing respect for their highest political and military leaders. As General Loechel writes in his survey, "The troops no longer stand unreservedly behind their military leaders." He adds, "In the eyes of the soldiers, senior leaders have abrogated their responsibility for the soldiers' well-being."

General Loechel also writes: "The internal situation is strained. The political leadership is viewed with strong reservations."

The most serious aspect of these two reports for the German government is that many of the complaints come from soldiers serving in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Although the two reports were compiled last year, similar complaints are said to have been expressed by the approximately 1,000 German soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the 126 based in Uzbekistan.

Armed forces parliamentary Commissioner Penner says many of the soldiers who wrote to him complained of out-of-date weaponry.

"Some of the equipment is older than some of the soldiers. That's become a common saying [among the troops]. The spare-parts situation is also very bad."

Penner said German soldiers stationed in Kabul complain that some of the vehicles used for patrolling the city are not armored. They say unarmored vehicles offer little protection in the event of an attack during daily patrols.

Kurt Meiser, a German defense analyst, says the two reports have revived the debate in Germany over the financing of the armed forces. Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping has fought a losing battle since taking office in 1998 to allocate more money to buy weapons and modernize equipment. Instead, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Finance Minister Hans Eichel cut back on military spending as part of a savings program.

Cuts in military spending throughout Europe began after the collapse of communism, when many governments believed it was no longer necessary to spend heavily on the armed forces. In Germany, the military budget in 1990 was about 2.5 percent of the gross domestic product. Chancellor Helmut Kohl cut this steadily, so that when he left office in 1998, it had fallen to about 1.5 percent of GDP.

The German military budget was increased slightly after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September. But according to Meiser and other defense analysts, the money is insufficient to provide the German military branches with the modern equipment they need to meet their responsibilities.

Despite concerns over falling morale and equipment deficiencies, most Germans appear to support the role of the German military in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

German troops are helping to ensure security on the streets of the capital, Kabul, and are also participating in work to defuse unexploded ordinance littering the city. These tasks are similar to those German soldiers performed in operations in the Balkans and elsewhere.

Among those supporting this German role is Claudia Roth, a co-leader of the German Greens party, which is often wary of supporting German military operations.

"Afghanistan is one of the most mined -- or perhaps the most mined -- country [in the world]. There are also many, many old weapons lying around there. What the German soldiers are doing is preventative work in the best meaning of the word -- to help ensure that people are not hurt, so that a normal life is again possible in Afghanistan."

The polls show Germans are less supportive of the possibility of German troops becoming involved in combat operations. In practice, however, only the 92 members of a special forces unit working with U.S special forces in Afghanistan are likely to see combat.

The generally positive support for German military operations does not seem to have been affected by the recent deaths of two German soldiers, killed while trying to defuse an old Russian-made ground-to-air missile. Polls indicate that such accidents are seen as an accepted part of the job.

Since 1993, when German troops began operating outside their own borders, 34 soldiers have died, most of them in accidents or through illness.