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Time for a Rethink?

DW staff / AFP (ncy)
October 29, 2006

Senior politicians on Sunday said Germany should rethink its role in foreign peacekeeping missions as the scandal over soldiers playing with skulls in Afghanistan battered the army's image.

Defense Minister Jung said Germany should limit its foreign missionsImage: AP

Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung warned that Germany may have stretched the military to its limits by sending troops on 11 foreign missions, ranging from Africa to the Middle East to Afghanistan.

"Even if we have the support of parliament, many deputies feel that we have reached the limit. We should practice restraint," Jung told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. "Until now we have failed to accompany the growing number of foreign military missions with a proper debate about their meaning and purpose," he added.

Jung's remarks contrasted sharply with a white paper on defense he submitted to cabinet on Wednesday which paves the way for Germany to increase the number of peacekeepers abroad from about 10,000 to up to 14,000.

Macabre photos

But as the minister unveiled the document, the country's biggest-selling newspaper Bild ran photographs showing German soldiers in Afghanistan in sometimes obscene poses with human skulls.

Two soldiers have been suspended so far in the scandal that has rattled a nation and an army that has worked hard for six decades to redeem its image after the Nazi horrors of World War II. The pictures in Afghanistan, taken in 2003, seem to have been the tip of the iceberg after more macabre images appeared in the media, taken at different times and in different parts of the strife-torn country.

Jahresrückblick Oktober 2006 Deutschland Bundeswehr Afghanistan Bild Zeitung Überschrift
"Bild" published the first photos WednesdayImage: AP

A senior army psychologist said in an interview with Bild am Sonntag newspaper that German soldiers serving in Kosovo had taken similar photographs.

"I found out in Kosovo that young soldiers were taking photographs of exhumations and autopsies which found their way into the barracks," Horst Schuh told the newspaper. "Some soldiers are strangely attracted by the macabre."

Is deployment justified?

Former Defense Minister Peter Struck, now the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, said it was time Germany brought home some of its men serving abroad, of whom 2,800 are part of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

"One always has to ask yourself whether a deployment is still justified," said Struck, who was minister at the time the soldiers took the pictures in Afghanistan but has denied knowing of them then. "The war in Bosnia ended 11 years ago, but we still have a big contingent there. We should be getting to the point where we can withdraw," Struck told Bild am Sonntag.

Struck said the German contingent in Kosovo should also be reduced.

Koalitionsverhandlungen - Merkel Struck
Former Defense Minister Struck suggested it was time to end the mission in BosniaImage: dpa

It was Kosovo that prompted Germany to break with a postwar taboo on sending its troops into combat when it contributed to the NATO aerial bombing campaign in the Serbian province in 1999.

This month marked another break with the past as the German navy took command of the marine component of the UN force in Lebanon in Germany's first military foray into the Middle East since World War II. The mission got off to a rocky start when six Israeli warplanes confronted an unarmed German ship and a helicopter backing up marines in the Mediterranean.

Merkel naive?

A heated debate has erupted at home, both about the Germans' restricted mandate in Lebanon and the risk that they could clash with Israeli soldiers -- a possibility that is viewed uneasily in Germany and Israel because of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews.

Germany chose not to send ground troops to the Lebanon peacekeeping force because of that risk.

Deutsche Schiffe für den Libanon
Germany has a mandate to patrol the Lebanese coastImage: AP

The opposition has accused conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel of misleading parliament in a bid to win its approval for the mission, while the press said she was naive to believe Germany could avoid all confrontation with Israeli forces.

The Lebanon mission has not been popular with the public, nor has Merkel's decision to send German troops to lead the European force that was Sunday monitoring presidential elections in the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Under the headline "The home front is divided," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the skull scandal has made any extension of the mandate of the DRC mission unlikely.

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