For the first time since 1945, German soldiers and tanks have gone on the offensive.
Three hundred German panzergrenadiers, accompanied by new Marder tanks, provided support recently to nine hundred Afghan troops in Operation Adler (Eagle) in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan.
The timing and aim of the 11-day offensive, which ended last Friday, coincided with those of Germany’s American and other NATO allies in Helmand province. The German attack was designed to clear a Taliban stronghold and secure the area for the upcoming Afghan national elections on August 20. Seventeen Taliban were reported killed in the operation, while the Afghan National Army suffered nine casualties.
The significance of the German offensive can hardly be overstated. Most notably, it signaled an end to Germany’s much-criticized and overly restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE), which had relegated the country’s 4,500 troops in Afghanistan to the role of mere spectators. Before Operation Adler, the hands of German soldiers had been effectively tied in combat by these bureaucratic rules.
One of the more ludicrous restrictions, since eliminated, would not have been out of place in a Marx Brothers skit. When encountering a Taliban fighter, for instance, German soldiers were expected to yell, first in English: “United Nations! Stop, or I will fire!” This warning was to be followed by a version of the same words in Pashtu, the language of many Taliban. After this, a further warning had to be made in Dari, another language common in Afghanistan. This has been called Germany’s “shout before shooting” policy.
The Pashtu and Dari versions of the warning were listed in the seven-page booklet that every German soldier serving in Afghanistan was obliged to carry. It outlined what he could and could not do in combat. The ludicrous image of a soldier referring to a pamphlet in life-or-death combat situations led to the joke popular among Germany’s NATO allies: “How can you identify a German soldier? He is the corpse clutching a pocket guide.”
Such laughable rules were not limited to Germany’s ground troops. The German government also decreed that its Tornado fighter aircraft could conduct only unarmed reconnaissance missions, while its Medevac helicopters were restricted to daytime flying. Last year, Germany’s politicians also frustrated American attempts to have German troops transferred from the then-tranquil north to southern Afghanistan, where fighting was more intense.
German generals, however, were angry with their government’s obstruction, and one of the highest ranking demanded a debate on the armed forces’ mission. The German military leadership was concerned about their troops’ reputation and a damaged relationship with NATO.
But more than Germany’s relationship with NATO may have been damaged by the government’s previous policy of enforced passivity. One military analyst avers the restrictive ROE were causing post-traumatic stress syndrome among Bundeswehr troops. Their inability to fire at the enemy until being fired upon first was, understandably, a source of considerable stress. And it could not have boosted morale that German troops were required to allow the escape of an enemy that had stopped shooting at them. One observer pointed out that even German police have the right to fire at a fleeing assailant.
These ill-informed policies, now changed, led to a top Taliban commander escaping from German commandos who had him in their gun sites. Since he was not firing at the Germans, they could not shoot him, although they knew he was a “brutal extremist.” Needless to say, the American military was not impressed with their German counterparts’ record of allowing deadly terrorists to live to fight another day.
Why did the German government hamstring its military with so many caveats? One reason is the German population’s strong antipathy to war – a legacy of 20th century history. In the last century, two world wars sprang from German soil, the second ending after incredible atrocities had been committed in Germany’s name. As a result, pacifist sentiment is now deeply entrenched in the country, and politicians disregard it at their electoral peril.
Times are changing, however. The Second World War ended sixty-four years ago and Germany is no longer a fragile democracy. Rather, it is a self-confident nation, governed by the rule of law and boasting an admirable record of human rights for nearly six decades.
Indicative of this new sense of self confidence and trust towards its armed forces is the fact that, after their basic training, 500 recruits took their oath last July on the lawn of the German parliament in Berlin, vowing to uphold the German constitution. Besides 1,500 of the recruits’ relatives, German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended, as did former chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who was a keynote speaker. “You can rely on this: this state will not misuse you,” said Schmidt, who was a German officer in World War Two.
Absent politicians were criticized for not attending and only the German parliament’s Left Party called for demonstrations. But only about 200 radicals showed up, among them an unrepentant 64-year-old former leftist terrorist from the 1970s.
Another indication of Germany’s growing confidence in its army’s transformation from a defensive force that avoids combat to a fighting force is that the government this year devised a military award that honors German soldiers’ exceptional bravery. Called the “Cross of Honor for Bravery”, it is the first German military award for courage since the Iron Cross of the Second World War.
But the main reason for the change in the Bundeswehr’s Rules of Engagement is that the Germans realize that their troops in Afghanistan are involved in a real war and not in some peacekeeping mission. Already this year, five German soldiers have died, almost matching the total number of German dead since the army’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2003.
German troops still must carry a booklet. But it is now only four pages long. And it includes their right to fight back.