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Dateline Afghanistan: Should German Soldiers Fight? (Part I)

It seems smart for Germany to not take part in NATO’s Afghanistan force. But is it also honorable?

April 26, 2007

It seems smart for Germany to not take part in NATO's Afghanistan force. But is it also honorable?

Germany has moved from a long-time "consumer of global security to a provider of global security," as one of the country's senior officials put it during a recent visit to Washington.

And yet, not just since the November 2006 NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, there has been a lot of debate about the reticence of some nations to engage themselves fully in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Especially Germany, with its almost 3,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan, has gotten into the crossfire. Its soldiers, critics argue, should do more in Afghanistan than serve in non-combat roles in the north of the country, a low-risk region.

Six decades after the Nazi era, most people can appreciate that the Germans want to go about stationing troops abroad in a most circumspect of manners.

And it is certainly a sign of the country's maturity — and sense of global responsibility — that its parliament decided in May 1999 to endorse German participation in a combat operation in Kosovo and thus open the door for further military missions abroad.

But with regard to Afghanistan, the question before Germans now is whether it is wise to hold steadfast to a ban on confining themselves strictly to the North — or expand their involvement to flanking NATO troops already operating in the much more dangerous South.

There are certainly many voices within Germany who warn against such a move. They argue with the weight of history on their backs — and counsel against such a step.

Ultimately, this debate — complex as it may seem at first — boils down to a number of very straightforward questions.

None is more important than the question of values: Under which circumstances, and in which situations, is it advisable for democracies to be willing to deploy combat troops — and to risk their soldiers' lives?

Rather than launch into too abstract a debate on this crucial issue, let us look at some real-life, practical applications of exercising those values.

Simply put, why — if, say, a country like Canada believes it is worth having combat troops in Afghanistan — should Germans not do the same? Nobody in his or her right mind could argue that democratic Canada stands for values on the global stage that differ from Germany's.

Neither is there evidence that Canadians, in contrast to the United Kingdom or Australia, are generally more risk-prone — or swashbuckling. In fact, the six soldiers Canada lost in Afghanistan on April 8, 2007 marked the country's single largest combat loss since the Korean War.

In addition, as did Germany's, Canada's government opposed the Iraq invasion. Plus, Canada has a long-standing history of seeking to advance democracy around the world by being active in the field of development policy.

And yet, Canadians understand very clearly, as one surmises most open-minded Germans would, that the key development problem for Afghanistan at this stage is to provide real security, with teeth if need be. Only then can all the other measures succeed.

To be sure, the country has slipped into a precarious situation — in large part due to the lack of U.S. attention following the completely ill-advised invasion of Iraq.

And for NATO as a whole, even the specter of a Soviet-style defeat cannot be ruled out. Given those circumstances, it would seem the "smart thing" to do not to become embroiled in contributing to NATO's fighting force in Afghanistan.

However, being "smart" can be something quite different from being honorable. It can, in fact, seamlessly move into outright opportunism.

It is clear that, in the annals of the Western alliance, Afghanistan will matter a lot. Even if the tide cannot be stemmed, it will matter who was there — and how much they risked — in order to prevent a potentially disastrous outcome.

But lest anybody think that this is a matter of abstract and seemingly outdated concepts such as the West's "honor," here is the very real question: Doesn't anybody who wants to help Afghanistan — especially the country’s oppressed women and girls — have a shot at a humane future need to be ready to stand up and fight, not just work as a quasi-police force?

It's a tricky question because the American example of nation-building as exercised in Afghanistan is not a particularly convincing one — for instance using Provincial Reconnaissance Teams as launching pads for military operations.

The Germans truly believe in a different concept. It basically says that, in the long run, you cannot quell violence unless there is a bright future on the horizon.

In other words: Simply fighting the Taliban will not work. You have to have successful civilian reconstruction projects to present to the people of Afghanistan. Only this will convey the message that it makes sense to side against the rebels.

Twenty-nine years of wars has pushed Afghans into a mindset that is hard to overcome. Generations have learned to obey only their local commanders.

They have been the only ones to provide some sort of security. To serve them, they picked up the rifles and went to fight — not for far-away rulers in Kabul. To lead a civil life was alien by nature — because nobody asked them to do so.

Come to think of it, the military defeat of the Taliban is not an option in this war. For one, there will always be a steady stream of fighters and weaponry trickling in from Pakistan. Secondly, in this fundamental Muslim society, the Taliban always have been a major and respected element.

When the U.S. invasion in October 2001 succeeded, no Taliban army was captured. The fighters simply put down their arms and blended with their peers — only to resurface some time later. Preventing the radical wing of this group from resuming power has at least as much to do with reconstruction as with combat.

That should be at the back of the minds of those Germans who are not convinced that outright military assignment is a risk worth taking.

At the same time, this stance militates against the very values that contemporary Germans widely believe they stand for in today's world. More importantly, it militates against a distinctly positive track record they have established in these areas.

These values include advancing equal rights for women, providing educational opportunities, laying the groundwork for building an economy out of the ruins of war and recognizing the importance of democracy to resolve internal power conflicts.

When that checklist is applied to Afghanistan, it becomes clear that this is a battle worth fighting.

You can read Part II here.

Editor’s Note: The author is a German citizen — and served in the German army as a draftee in the late 1970s. The author also thanks Markus Ziener for his insights and comments. Between 2001 and 2005, he traveled extensively throughout Afghanistan — and reported from there for Germany’s Handelsblatt.