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

Is it the right of mature democracies to help less fortunate nations secure a prosperous future?

April 27, 2007

Is it the right of mature democracies to help less fortunate nations secure a prosperous future?

It is certainly true, as one often hears in the German debate, that the Hindukush is far away from Germany — and that there would be a loss of life involved. And yes, Germans in interviews openly wonder whether the country should not focus on using all its hard-pressed national resources to fight the battles at home (such as combating unemployment and securing social services).

Those are all relevant questions — but answers can be found to all of them. First, it is unbecoming of a major democratic nation to use its history as an excuse to demand that its soldiers — unlike those of other nations — be allowed to play it safe by comparison.

What privilege one is accorded, and whether one's troops get to serve in less risky regions in a given country of deployment, should only be a question of military strategy and force posture to be decided by one’s alliance and in conjunction with the host government.

There cannot be a two-class NATO of real soldiers and of "safetypins." One also has to wonder whether the German soldiers themselves don't feel the pressure of effectively being relegated to second-class soldiers — leaving the task to fight, if the need arises, to the fellows from the other nations.

Deep down, any soldier realizes that he has chosen a risky profession — and that there may be an ultimate price to be paid. While that risk can never be eliminated, what matters in the end is what purpose is served.

Against that backdrop, German history provides a strong argument in favor of deployment. While there is no denying that millions of German soldiers have died for ignoble causes in the 20th century, it is high time for a mature, solidly democratic and prosperous Germany to be prepared, at long last, to sacrifice a few soldiers for good causes.

In its history spanning almost half a century by now, the Bundeswehr has lost a total of 64 soldiers, 18 of them in Afghanistan. Most of them lost their lives due to accidents — not in combat.

Now, there are those who will argue that German soldiers presently in Afghanistan did not sign on for a potential combat role. Then again, the German forces there are mostly from the ranks of the professional army and supplemented only by some conscripts who voluntarily serve longer.

If Germany decided to change their status, the soldiers over there could certainly be offered an opt-out clause to return home, so as to ensure that nobody could claim that they signed on under conditions that were then changed retroactively.

That still leaves the issue of whether changing the status of German soldiers to allow their deployment abroad from here on out to include combat operations does not represent a slippery slope.

In this context, it is fully legitimate to be mindful of the views of other nations who remember a marauding German army. Likewise, the Germans themselves — for irrefutable reasons — have a painful memory of being marauders — and have every right to be wary of it.

To resolve this potential conflict, two considerations are pivotal: First, the German army can only be deployed with the explicit — and detailed — approval of parliament. Unlike in the United States, those parliamentary debates preceding deployment are extremely rigorous — and very specific.

Given that approval mechanism, there is no conceivable way that the German military would be used other than for the noblest of purposes. Afghanistan is such a case — and so is Congo (and potentially other areas of Africa).

The values test in each case is straightforward: Is it a vital function of well-endowed, mature democracies to help those nations much less well off to have a fighting chance to secure a peaceful way for themselves to reach a prosperous future?

For sure, development aid, hands-on project management and private investment are not just key parts — but the primary response mechanism — of executing such a strategy. But, as the case of Canada again proves most convincingly, in the ultimate analysis one's involvements cannot be limited to non-combat roles.

The evolution in German thinking about these crucial issues in recent years has certainly been impressive. The country was fortunate that it had a left-of-center government coalition in place when it took the first steps to relax the ban on overseas operations for its soldiers.

When that government convened the Petersberg conference in December 2001 to lay the groundwork for a stable Afghanistan, Germany assumed not just a symbolic responsibility for that country's future.

Now is the time for Angela Merkel's government to take the next logical step.

It won't be easy. For sure, the enthusiasm and hopes and early positive results of 2001 have given way to the sad realities of 2006. And yes, in Hamid Karzai Afghanistan has a president who is caught up in a maze of tribal issues. Warlords are still in place, poppy production is on the rise again and certain parts of the country have seen scant signs of progress.

That is all true — and yet, as trite, or uncomfortable, or overly emotional as it may sound in German ears, few things will provide a better cause worth fighting for than Afghanistan's maddening regression. Sometimes, it matters a lot to try to make a difference — even against long odds.

But since Germans rightfully believe that there is good reason not to let Afghanistan slip back into a state of lawlessness and anarchy, they have to embrace an enlarged role — which implies more sacrifices.

However, this must be part of a well thought-out strategy and not only another quick fix. But then again, one thing that Germans are known for, with good reason, is that they are circumspect planners.

Either way, the “weight of history” cannot be used as a cop-out. Yes, German soldiers have fought on the wrong side of history too often. But that historical fault cannot be used as an argument to keep German soldiers from showing what they can do in Afghanistan — on the right side of history — with the full risks that are entailed with being a soldier.

You can read Part I 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.