07 September 2009

A little behind, but...

The big news in Afghanistan this week is centering around a NATO airstrike which is said to have killed over 90 Afghans, some of them militants, but unfortunately, many of them bystanders. For the past few days, my knowledge of the subject has only been headline-deep, as a.) the news stations seem to be picking up on a number of stories completely unrelated to Afghanistan and b.) contrary to popular belief, most troops don’t talk strategy in the dining facility. (Just look back to my “dining facility” coverage of the Iranian elections).

Fortunately, a lot of smart people have begun to cover the airstrike, which was carried out by an American F-15E, and called in by German troops. The best coverage of this topic comes from Andrew Exum, who has provided many scathing critiques this week on many (but not all) of the NATO contingents operating in Afghanistan, particularly the German Bundeswehr.

Caveat: Let me be the first to say that one shouldn’t arbitrarily throw about the term “risk aversion” unnecessarily in regards to NATO troops. Certainly British and Australian troops have done a considerable amount of fighting, especially when considering the size of each country’s respective militaries (The elite Australian Special Air Service, in particular, is credited with assassinating a Taliban commander last week). Indeed, many of the smaller NATO contingents have had losses proportionally higher than those of the US. As of three months ago, Denmark, a country with a population not much bigger than that of most US cities, had twenty-five troops killed in Afghanistan—two to three times the casualty rate (per capita) for American troops.

Despite the contributions and sacrifice of many of NATO’s allies, considerable scrutiny has been placed on the German Army’s efforts in Afghanistan. If you thought risk aversion and FOBBIT-ism was bad in the US military, just wait till you see the articles about the Germans. While US forces have “surged” in troop levels, German troops have apparently “surged” the amount of alcohol consumed. In the first six months of 2008, the 3600 troops of the German Army in Afghanistan consumed some 900,000 pints of beer and over 50,000 bottles of wine. (Note that this period does not cover Oktoberfest). Additionally, 40% of German troops were assessed as being overweight. The effect on mission accomplishment? Take a look at what Germany’s own military leaders are saying:

This has prompted Reinhold Robbe, Parliamentary Commissioner for the armed forces [of Germany], to observe: "Plainly put, the soldiers are too fat, exercise too little and take little care of their diet."

There was also a stinging assessment given by the head of Germany's crack commando squad, the KSK.

In a frank outburst, General Hans-Christoph Ammon, whose soldiers are fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban, said the scheme to train Afghan police [Ed. Note: appropriate link can be found here]– for which Germany is responsible – had been "a miserable failure".

He said the German Government had put just 12 million towards training the Afghan Army and police.

"At that rate, it would take 82 years to have a properly trained police force," he told Deutsche Press Agency [emphasis added].

The fresh criticisms follow a string of accusations against Germany's military effort in Afghanistan, many of which revolve around alcohol.

(As an added note, an article in September’s Foreign Affairs magazine examines the 60th anniversary of NATO’s founding, noting that the US military presence in Europe was designed not just to keep the Soviets out of Western Europe, but also to keep the German Army from continually invading its neighbors, and rightly so. Indeed, with the end of the Cold War, the thawing of Franco-German relations, decolonization and the lack of any remaining natural enemies, it seems they’ve drifted far from being the army of Clausewitz and Rommel. But at least they’re not invading France and on a regular basis.)

The German Army in particular has been accused of extreme risk aversion in Afghanistan, and the following vignettes from a number of embedded reporters seem to confirm this image. Immediately following the destruction of the fuel tankers, the German commander refused to travel to the site to investigate claims of civilian casualties. Enter General Stanley McChrystal:

…[T]heir first order of business was to head to the bombing site. It was just four miles south of the airport where they landed.

But the German commander, Col. Georg Klein, urged them not to go. Residents were angry, he said, and German forces had been attacked a few hours earlier. "There's a likelihood we'll be shot at," he said.

Klein also deemed a visit to the hospital to be too dangerous. Instead, the officers traveled to the nearby headquarters of the Kunduz province reconstruction team, home to about 1,000 German troops responsible for security and rebuilding operations in the area. There the team members settled into a small octagonal room for a series of briefings from Klein and his subordinates. Without a chance to talk to survivors, they would not be able to determine that day whether the German claims that no civilians were killed were accurate. The consequence was that NATO would have to continue issuing tentative statements promising a thorough investigation, while plenty of Afghans were taking to the airwaves to describe what they had seen…

…As [US General Stanley] McChrystal drove to the bombing site -- defying German suggestions that the area was too dangerous -- one senior NATO official noted that the lack of opposition from local officials, despite relatively clear evidence that some civilians were killed, could help to de-escalate tensions.

"We got real lucky here," the official said.

But McChrystal still had a message to deliver. Even if the Afghan officials were not angry, he certainly did not seem pleased.

After fording the muddy river to see the bombing site -- getting his pants wet up to his knees -- he addressed a small group of journalists at the reconstruction team headquarters and said it was "clear there were some civilians harmed at that site." He said NATO would fully investigate the incident.

The German Army’s reliance on a single Afghan informant as to the status of the people surrounding the two tanker trucks without confirming it with other sources of intelligence (save for the grainy feed from the F-15E—directly contradicting General McChrystal’s guidance) not only suggests extreme risk aversion, but also lends credence to Adam Elkus’ essay the other day regarding the pitfalls of the “over the horizon” approach to counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, advocated most notably by George Will.

Further links and quotes from around the blogosphere

Abu Muqawama:

A friend of mine was recently at a conference in Europe where a German parliamentarian was touting the successes of the Bundeswehr in northern Afghanistan -- at the expense of the Dutch, Canadians, British, Australians and Americans fighting hard in eastern and southern Afghanistan. "Great," a smiling Dutch questioner asked, "perhaps you would now like to deploy your troops to the
south and show us how it's done?" (Cue laughter from the audience.)

As with the British in southern Iraq between 2003 and 2007, everything -- the tactics, the operations, the mindset -- looks great while things are quiet. And the Germans in northern Afghanistan are quite happy with themselves and with their approach. But what if things start to turn south? What if things are going on underneath the radar where you do not have visibility because you don't have an enduring pressence with the population? And what if you need to ramp up your operations? The British ended up with egg on their faces when it took the Iraqi Army -- working alongside the U.S. military -- to crack down on the militias of Basra while the British Army sat in their bases. What does it means for the NATO/ISAF coalition in Afghanistan if Germany cannot or will not escalate operations in Kunduz.

Echoes From the Blast (Mudville Gazette, which I can’t read from my government computer, but Greyhawk usually links to great stuff.)

Germany is ISAF’s Weakest Link (Registan.net)

This is not the first time the German posture in Kunduz has been astoundingly counterproductive. When an Alternative Livelihoods crew was struck by an IED in Badakhshan in 2005, killing two, the Germans refused for hours to send any help to the survivors. They were worried about being attacked while people bled out onto the road. It took hectoring from both UNAMA and the U.S. embassy (some of the victims were Americans) to get them to mount a laughably overwrought rescue mission….

…Germany’s near-criminal negligence in Afghanistan must come to an end (we didn’t even touch how badly they mucked up their modest police training mission). Either they need to man up and start behaving like a real army, or they need to get the hell out and let someone else do their job appropriately. Because right now, they have spent enough years making everything they touch worse off.

US-German Rift Emerges Over Afghan Death Case (AP News)

[Colonel] Klein, in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, declined to say whether images provided by the U.S. jets had been clear enough for weapons to be seen among Afghans on the ground, citing the ongoing investigation.

A German Joint Terminal Air Controller, or JTAC, who spoke on condition that his name not be used because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said the rules for ordering an attack clearly state that the ultimate decision rests with the ground commander.

But rules also require that both the pilot and the JTAC get a good positive identification of the target before the commander can order a weapon deployed, the JTAC said. "Only when both are sure that what we see is a target, only then will the pilot drop the bomb," the JTAC said.

Afghan Airstrike Roils Germany’s Election Campaign (Los Angeles Times)


El Goyito said...

Wow...where do I start? On one hand I'm glad the Bundswehr's no Wehrmacht (esp no Waffen-SS) in respect to the underlying reason NATO was created in the first place (to keep the Jerries under wraps). But on the other hand, the general unprofessionalness (rampant drunkenness, slovenly appearance, etc) and risk aversion of the Germans may well compromise NATOs mission in Afghanistan.

In all the Europeans I've talked to I am continually amazed at the complete lack of gonads they have. Perhaps the legacy of the 20th Century (World Wars I & II) has left them completely unable to come to grips with the use of military force...? But whatever the reason, they'd better snap to because their own future may rely on how well they defend their own culture.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/05/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.