1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A humanitarian military?

December 3, 2010

Germany's defense minister has said he wants troops in crisis regions to work more closely with humanitarian aid agencies on the ground. Aid groups are opposed to the idea. Is there room for compromise?

german bundeswehr soldiers in afghanistan
Aid groups say the Bundeswehr should stick to its military tasksImage: AP

Military and civilian organizations, on the ground together in crisis regions around the world, should learn to work together more closely, said German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg at a meeting earlier this week in Berlin.

Guttenberg told a parliamentary party congress of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), that both nonprofit aid organizations and the military needed to create a "culture of mutual trust" and cooperation, and show a more unified face to the outside world.

A question of integrity

Yet this type of cooperation is highly controversial. While proponents say it puts a more unified and decisive face on German activities abroad, those opposed - such as many humanitarian aid groups who are present on the ground - say it could easily compromise their integrity and independence.

German soldier speaking to Afghans
German soldiers have close contact to the Afghan populationImage: www.bundeswehr.de

The Berlin panel, including Guttenberg, discussed in depth the complex topic based on the recommendations of a CDU/CSU position paper, "Civil-Military Cooperation - An Alliance for the Future?"

Guttenberg acknowledged that there were prejudices on both sides of the issue. Yet he said the question was not whether, but how, the military and civic groups should work together.

Umbrella group is strictly opposed

According to Guttenberg, the main ingredient missing for better cooperation is nerve. His party needs to be more forceful in getting its message across, he said.

"Sometimes we are afraid of our own shadow, because we think there could be unpleasant realities tied to our actions," Guttenberg said.

Suzana Lipovac, head of international programs at the German aid organization Kinderberg International, said there were pros and cons to such cooperation. On the one hand, years of experience had taught her the importance of being pragmatic about the use of resources. On the other hand, she questioned the wisdom of working closely together with the military in places where that might be seen as detrimental - for example, in Afghanistan.

Meeting with the Taliban

There, her organization takes part in large public meetings that may also be attended by enemies of allied troops. Her project could not exist without these meetings, where Afghan village elders, Imams - and also, sometimes, Taliban - meet, Lipovac said.

German soldiers in Sarajevo
The Bundeswehr was part of EUFOR troops in Bosnia and HerzegovinaImage: picture-alliance / dpa

But since the aim of her humanitarian work was to help reach the Millennium Development Goals - namely, to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates - the most important thing was getting help, wherever it could be found, she said.

However, Lipovac said she has benefited from the help of German soldiers in Bosnia, where the German army, or Bundeswehr, was not seen as an occupying force. Lipovac said a study showed refugees in Bosnian camps ranked physical security ahead of food, medical aid, or even a bottle of water.

The military can provide what aid groups cannot

Yet safety was something that aid groups in crisis regions couldn't provide, she noted. Soldiers were often needed to create a situation where humanitarian aid could be applied.

"And then we could provide that aid," Lipovac said.

But Venro, an umbrella group for German development NGOs, rejects out of hand the idea of working together with troops - be they German or from other countries.

Robert Lindner, Venro's Afghanistan spokesman, warned against such cooperation, whether it be in regions with heavy or light fighting, or even where there are few projects, such as Day Kundi, Afghanistan.

Putting aid workers in danger

Military rebuilding specialists - so called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs - do not belong there at all, Lindner said. Bringing them there would only endanger the lives of civilian aid workers.

Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg
Guttenberg is working on plans to restructure the German militaryImage: AP

"In Day Kundi, there are local authorities who have said 'please no projects by PRTs. We know that it's harmful to us' and I think we should listen to the wishes of the local people in Afghanistan."

Brigadier General Frank Leidenberger, who has had many years of experience in Afghanistan, admitted that the Bundeswehr had done things wrong in the past and said the connection between humanitarian and military work had yet to be made clear. Yet he acknowledged that no one has really been put in charge of connecting the two parties.

"We have definitely made mistakes," Leidenberger told the Berlin panel. "We have done operations because the civil-humanitarian situation, and the connection to development agencies, wasn't clear enough. I have to assume that, I can't say so exactly, because there was no one to talk to me about it."

Collateral security concept

With the concept of so-called collateral security, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has learned what it believes are necessary lessons for further Afghanistan engagement. A broad array of instruments are necessary for conflict and crisis management, Defense Minister Guttenberg said: diplomatic, political, economic, developmental, policing - and sometimes even military.

A change in strategy from purely putting down uprisings to offering more protection for populations was "very, very late in coming," the minister said. Precious time had been lost, yet Germany had "at least come a little bit farther" in its role as a security ally, he said.

As to Guttenberg's concept of civilian-military cooperation, Brigadier General Leidenberger said there was "no alternative."

Author: Marcel Fuerstenau (jen)
Editor: Rob Mudge