Time for some 'Bundesmacht'

Posted in NATO , Broader Middle East | 25-Oct-07 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

German troops of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

KABUL: Remember the Wehrmacht? It was a formidable fighting force. The modern German army, the Bundeswehr, is also very effective. Thing is, it is reluctant to fight or even place itself in danger.

Given the history of the first half of the 20th century, that may seem just fine. The United States helped frame the institutions of today's Germany precisely with a view to guaranteeing peace over war. But in Afghanistan, where 3,200 German troops serve in a hard-pressed NATO force, a touch of "Bundesmacht" would be welcome.

Afghanistan is a divided country. The south and east are dangerous because Taliban forces are resurgent there; NATO casualties have been significant. The north and west are quieter; peacekeeping tends to prevail. Tensions have grown between frontline alliance states fighting a war and those that are not.

The former group, battling the Taliban in the poppy-growing Helmand province and elsewhere, includes the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. The latter is dominated by Germany, Spain and Italy. The split gives a rough guide to parts of the world that still see military force as inextricable from international security and others that are now functionally pacifist.

"In Afghanistan, NATO solidarity collapses at the point of danger," said Julian Lindley-French, a military expert at the Netherlands Defense Academy. "There's no point planning robust operations worldwide if the burden is not shared. A lot of the German troops are little more than heavily-armed traffic cops."

Canada, with about 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, less than the German force, has taken 71 fatal casualties. That is about three times the number of German losses and seven times the Italian. Britain has over 80 dead, and the United States almost 450. These are eloquent numbers.

The Afghan mission has evolved. The United Nations mandate for the 40,000 NATO troops of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) speaks of the "maintenance of security" in the interests of "reconstruction and humanitarian efforts." Nowhere does it mention counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism.

But with the Taliban regrouping, and support for it still arriving from Pakistani border areas, security has become inseparable from eliminating insurgents. General Dan McNeill, the American ISAF commander, said "thousands" of Taliban had been killed this year; other NATO officers put the figure at about 5,000.

Some of this counter-insurgency toll is the work of U.S. and other special forces in the separate American-run Operation Enduring Freedom - the more secret of the Afghan campaigns. Still, NATO is at war here.

That, however, is a fact Europeans are reluctant to accept, just as the link between slaughter in Madrid, London or Amsterdam and the Afghan-Pakistani terror nexus seems unconvincing to many post-modern Europeans floating on an Iraq-comforted wave of moral smugness.

The German Bundestag this month approved the extension of the German mission for another year. But Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has not visited Afghanistan, prefers talk of trendy eco-problems.

Tenuous German support for deployment here is tied to the mission maintaining the "caveats" with which it began: The army is here to help with security, reconstruction and good governance from a northern base. Building schools should be more central to ISAF than killing Taliban. Soft power trumps hard power.

General McNeill would not argue with some of that. "There is no solely military solution," he said. Afghanistan, six years after the toppling of the Taliban, stands at a tipping point: Only improved governance, a less corrupt police and material progress will marginalize the back-to-the-past brigade.

But this under-resourced mission, on which NATO's future hinges, needs switch-hitters. Rigid interpretation of mandates ill serves a changing situation. William Wood, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, said: "The commitment to Afghanistan should be a full commitment," adding, "Some of the caveats should be removed." He continued, "It would certainly be better if we could all cooperate together on precisely the same missions."

NATO defense ministers, meeting in the Netherlands, are being pressed this week by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to provide more troops, helicopters and transport planes. They're needed. But at a deeper level, NATO members must decide whether they are in this together with an equal readiness to face danger.

If, for example, the Germans, Italians and Spanish were more flexible, some of their troops could be detached to provide a strategic reserve for the stormy south.

One German retort I've heard is that it's no good the United States demanding that its allies fight and die in southern Afghanistan when Washington refuses debate over the role of its pampered friend, Pakistan, in the violence.

That's a fair point. Still, it's time to bring on the Bundesmacht and past time for continental Europe to overcome its pacifist mirage and accept these are dangerous times demanding serious defense budgets and sacrifice.

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