Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Germany's Reputation

During the time I was in Afghanistan last year, it would have been a mistake to say that German forces kept a low profile in northern Afghanistan. They kept zero profile, by report of everyone I worked with at Bagram: no active patrolling outside their base, some daytime reconstruction activity, all in all pretty hunkered down.

Whether the German soldiers themselves wanted it this way was beside the point since civilian leadership back home told them to stay put. That's because Chancellor Merkel wanted a twofer: to get Germany credit for being a pillar of NATO, but ideally to sustain zero casualties in the process by playing it safe with a minimal mission in the safest part of Afghanistan.

Shh--the German electorate is sleeping.

And this scheme worked for years, as Germans generally seemed unaware that their soldiers were fighting, or fighting to stay out of, a war thousands of miles from home.

Now, Merkel has gotten the worst possible outcome: German commanders decided to destroy two hijacked fuel trucks; they ordered an air attack based on single-source intelligence; many civilians died; and through some near-mystical lack of cojones, German soldiers weren't ordered to secure the site of the attack until the next day. In a singular episode of what my boss at Bagram used to call the "self-cleaning battlefield," there wasn't a single body left.

U.S. commanders will see a familiar pattern here: We bomb, good and bad guys die, everyone gets buried before even a rudimentary investigation gets under way. It's a universal problem of this type of war, and not a big deal for electorates in the U.S. and Britain which have no problem referring to an "Afghan war."

The real problem is back home in Germany, where some members of Parliament are going bonkers and "prosecutors in Potsdam said Monday that they were considering whether to open a homicide investigation into the decision by a German military commander to order the airstrike. ..."

In other words, a Germany that's unaware it's involved in a war, or refuses to call it that or certify its military actions as such, may have to decide what it really thinks. On the fly. Right before German national elections on September 27. Anyone want to ask former Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar whether any of this sounds familiar?

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