It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where the German Army is?
If it’s the few thousand social worker-servicemen in Afghanistan, they’re probably tucked securely into bed. That’s because German soldiers serving with the U.S. and other allies have a curfew, among other “national caveats” that prevent them from making a serious military contribution to the fight against the Taliban.
Chancellor Merkel is certainly better than her predecessor in showing solidarity with the U.S. She has silenced much of the carping criticism of American foreign policy; rapidly censured Russian aggression against Georgia this past summer; and offered important intelligence cooperation in the war against Islamofascism. And Germany has been surprisingly stalwart in standing by Israel in the ongoing fighting against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But on crucial issues Germany still lags, especially by continuing to trade with the Iranians and especially in Afghanistan, where their obduracy is helping to jeopardize the fight against the Taliban and thereby bringing into question the very future of NATO.
Following World War II, of course, the Germans were the very model of cooperation. They acted as good democrats in supporting NATO and the progressive unification of Europe; as penance for the War, they made extensive reparations to individual victims of Nazism, to Israel and to others; and as the largest economic power in Europe, they were generous in helping to revive the continent.
They had little choice: It was the price for readmission into the community of civilized nations. But sixty years after the war, with a vibrant economy, the respect of the world, and the Russian Bear no longer at its door, allies and obligations are no longer as useful or necessary. Germany has therefore felt free to distance itself from friends and slough off particularly onerous responsibilities, using as an excuse claims of continuing war guilt and fear of its own national character -- a disquieting moral inversion that hints at its old selfish nationalism.
While the U.S. spends approximately 4% of GDP on defense, our German ally spends 1.4% and continues to insist on the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops on German soil. Even as the U.S. offers a security umbrella, Germany is itching to sell military goods embargoed by the U.S.; has signed energy agreements with Russia that compromise Western security; and to please Moscow has worked to at least slow down the expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia.
As the crisis with Iran builds, Germany increases its exports to the Mullahs, with businessmen almost gleeful in defying calls for stronger sanctions. Those sales have increased by approximately 10% in the past year and include the kinds of goods and services (e.g., certain computer and engineering services, and massive tunneling equipment) that may have military applications and probably aren’t available from Iranian allies Russia and China.
Now Germany is playing the distant and reluctant ally in Afghanistan, a critical fight in itself but perhaps more significant as a crucible that -- in large measure because of German obstinacy -- is putting NATO to the test. Afghanistan has exposed a number of problems with NATO (and France and other allies, for example, need no lessons in how to avoid a fight), but as Europe’s model and center of gravity, Germany’s reluctance to commit adequate troops and the restrictions on their activities have been particularly destructive by confirming neighbors in their own hesistancy. If Germany won’t fight, why should others, now or in the future?
The Germans have been urged with an almost-undiplomatic vehemence to make a serious contribution to the war. NATO commanders have stressed how the covenants and inadequate troop strength impede operations. But any German tendencies to a spacious statesmanship are undercut by Chancellor Merkel’s lack of an independent majority and a pacifism that has bit deeply into the Germany soul -- not to mention a press that is often anti-American. The dispute rumbles on, with German foot-dragging having already damaged the alliance and increasingly threatening it with disarray and even defeat -- and disillusionment on the part of the final arbiters of NATO’s solvency: the American people.
Currently, there are only approximately 4,500 German troops authorized to serve in Afghanistan. The UK, by contrast, has committed approximately 8,800 troops, the U.S. around 30,000 (with another 20 – 30,000 expected this summer). Germany has suffered approximately 33 deaths, as compared to 135 for the UK and 629 for the U.S. Germany has lost over half these troops in combat -- its greatest combat loss since World War II -- but the disparity remains telling.
Only the U.S., UK, Canada, the Netherlands among the largest contingents operating in Afghanistan without national covenants as to how and where their troops may be deployed, with the German example providing moral and political cover to the rest of NATO. Given the inadequate troop strength against a resurgent Taliban, the result right now is a near-stalemate.
The secret caveats (some of which have leaked to the press) mean that the Germans -- trained more for reconstruction than combat -- are unable to effectively engage the Taliban. They are stationed in the relatively peaceful North of the country; may only use lethal force if an attack is taking place or is imminent; are not allowed to go out at night; and only patrol in armored vehicles. German soldiers may not participate in the targeting of individual terrorists; do not go on extended patrols or respond to local security events; and only recently have been allowed to go to the assistance of allies in an emergency
For over three years, 100 members of the German KSF Special Forces were stationed in Afghanistan but apparently did not participate in a single mission, and now their inactivity is being cynically exploited by German politicians as a questionable excuse to bring them home.
The fate of Afghanistan and NATO may hang in the balance, but by 10:00 p.m. German soldiers are no doubt safely abed. Four time zones to the West, amidst lush countryside and bright and shiny cities Germany’s 82 million citizens go about their business enjoying peace and plenty that is still all-too-often ensured by her allies.
The aphorism that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing is no less true of nations than it is of individuals. Germany has made strides to take up the obligations that go with her now honored and successful place in the world but still needs to throw off a vision clouded by delusions of a special moral rectitude that is an ironic product of a dark past. That’s their German problem, and ours.