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Blurred Bundeswehr Mandate in Afghanistan

15/12/09December 15, 2009

The controversy over a deadly attack in Kunduz that killed dozens of civilians continues to rage in Germany. For months, the German military establishment justified the attack as self-defence but more and more it seems as if the ISAF forces in Afghanistan specifically targeted Taliban militants in Kunduz. The question, however, is whether German troops would have been justified to act offensively.

There are calls for German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to resign over the Kunduz attack
There are calls for German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to resign over the Kunduz attackImage: AP

The German Bundeswehr is in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. United Nations resolutions, NATO decisions and agreements with the Afghan government decide what ISAF troops are allowed to do in Afghanistan.

The German parliament’s ISAF mandate -- renewed on 3. Dec. 2009 -- describes the Bundeswehr’s task as “maintaining security” and allows it explicitly to use force to do so.

Sigmar Gabriel, the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, the SPD, who has been calling for the resignation of the current defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg over the Kunduz affair wants the answer to a very specific question:

“Whether it is true that there was a change of strategy to include the targeted killing of Taliban leaders without there being a specific danger to the Bundeswehr or its work. And if this is the case, then who ordered the change of strategy and who knew about it?”

Deadly violence in self-defence only?

For years, the Bundeswehr imposed limits on itself. Deadly violence was only to be used if German soldiers were attacked or at direct risk of attack.

In the summer, German troops were coming under increasing attack by insurgents and the defence ministry lifted the limits. Soldiers are now told explicitly that they can go on the offensive against people or groups that are planning or supporting attacks.

German troops killed some 20 Taliban fighters during an offensive in Kunduz province in July.

Furthermore, German troops have been deployed in Quick Reaction Forces since July 2008 and these never acted purely in self-defence.

Soldiers have to be able to fight

Lieutenant Colonel Gunnar Brügner -- the first Quick Reaction Forces commander -- made it clear what was expected from the very beginning: “Each soldier who goes to Afghanistan has to be in a position to fight.”

“We have to be capable of protecting, helping and mediating. To find a balance between tasks at the bottom end of the intensity spectrum but also to make the jump to highly-intensive battles, to attacks and to deploying our own forces. The whole range basically.”

German reconnaissance Tornados in Mazar-i-Sharif have also been engaged in more than self-defence for the past two and a half years. The Bundeswehr jets were initially deployed to protect ISAF troops, as well as civilian aid workers and the Afghan population.

But Colonel Thorsten Poschwatta, who ran the Tornado operation during its first months, said that this was not all: “Somehow the search for Taliban is also a goal. But we do not talk about the good ones but really about those who want to hinder the ISAF operations, the reconstruction of the country. So in that sense there’s nothing wrong.”

A parliamentary committee will convene on Wednesday to investigate if the attack in Kunduz -- whether an act of self-defence or a specific offensive against the Taliban -- was justified.

Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Thomas Bärthlein