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Germany to expand global military missions

March 7, 2018

The German government wants to extend six military missions, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen pushed for more Bundeswehr interventions, but not everyone backs the move.

Von der Leyen in Iraq
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

The German government wants to expand and adapt its foreign military missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mali, Angela Merkel's Cabinet agreed on Wednesday. The German parliament will have the final say, as it does on all of Germany's military operations.

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told public broadcaster ARD on Wednesday morning that the Bundeswehr needs to redirect its efforts in Iraq after the successful defeat of the Islamic State (IS) militia in the country. The focus would now be supporting Iraq's reconstruction efforts.

"It's in our interests that it becomes a stable country over the years," she said.

Von der Leyen claimed that the Bundeswehr mission to train the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, which is due to end at the end of April, had been "a great success," and pushed to expand it. In the future, the Bundeswehr would also maintain a presence in Baghdad and Irbil, where it would advise on building ministries and providing soldiers with medical supplies, the defense minister said. 

Germany would also continue to fly reconnaissance missions with its Tornado fighters and keep refuelling planes in Iraq. The total number of troops involved in the Iraq mission would drop to a maximum of 800.

German soldiers train peshmerga soldiers
Peshmerga soldiers came to Hannover in 2016 to receive military trainingImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/M. Sohn

MP questions Germany's motivation

The Bundestag will now have to vote on the proposed Bundeswehr extensions and expansions. While approval is likely due to support from CDU and Social Democratic (SPD) politicians, the two parties that will make up Germany's long-awaited government, the measure will not be without dissent.

Alexander Neu, security policy spokesman for the Left party, expressed skepticism about the underlying purpose of Germany's planned capacity-building mission in Iraq.

"Beneath the cipher of reconstruction and strengthening security forces, of course it's about the politics of influence," Neu told DW. "Anyone who builds up security forces of course has a significant influence on the political direction of the country. In Iraq it's about limiting the influence of Iran on the Iraqi army. That's the reason behind the German engagement," he argued.

Alexander Neu stands in front of a Linke poster
Neu was critical of von der Leyen's interview and of German military policy in the Middle EastImage: DW/J. Danisman

He also criticized why Germany was involved in Iraq in the first place. "Who expects us to take part? The US? It is completely irrelevant what the US wants," Neu said. "Germany has its own sovereign interests." Since December 2015, German Tornados have been flying reconnaissance missions to support the US military operation against Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, known as Operation Inherent Resolve.

"When it comes to Iraq, one could say that the Iraqi government has made this invitation — but in Syria it is not at all clear that there is a basis under international law, and, of course, the Bundeswehr is operating in Syria with the deployment of Tornados over Syrian territory," Neu added. "That definitely does not conform to international law."

His words took aim at Defense Minister von der Leyen's interview, in which she had underlined the international legal basis as it pertained to Germany's mission in Iraq. "We have the invitation of the [Iraqi] prime minister, and we are there shoulder to shoulder with the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and many other countries," the defense minister said. Syria was not discussed in the interview.

Read more:German military short on tanks for NATO mission

The never-ending Afghanistan mission

Von der Leyen also used Wednesday's interview to call for an expansion of the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan, where Germany has contributed to NATO missions for the past 17 years.

Von der Leyen described the Bundeswehr's contribution to NATO's two missions (ISAF from 2001 to 2014; Resolute Support since 2015) as a "story of progress on the one side, but of course also setbacks."

The bombed German Embassy in Kabul stands in ruins
The German Embassy in Kabul was bombed in June 2017Image: Picture alliance/Zumapress/R. Alizadah

The defense minister argued that the educational opportunities for children, the status of women, health care and infrastructure in Afghanistan had all improved over the years, but that Afghanistan's own army, now comprising some 350,000 soldiers, was still struggling to keep the country safe. The Afghan military controls around 60 percent of the country, though Taliban fighters still have managed to carry out attacks on government facilities — as well as on the German Embassy in Kabul.

Up until now, the Bundeswehr has kept a maximum of 980 troops in the country, though von der Leyen wants to raise that limit to 1,300.

Read moreGermany's long, hard slog in Afghanistan

Mali: the most dangerous mission

Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr is to send an extra 100 soldiers to join the United Nations' mission in Mali, increasing the German contribution in the western African nation to a maximum of 1,100 officers. The proposal came in a joint letter to the Cabinet from von der Leyen and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel seen by news agency dpa.

The Bundeswehr has been part of the Mali mission since 2013, when the UN sent troops to help maintain a peace agreement that was set in place after a French military operation against Islamist rebel groups in the north of the country. There are a total of 12,000 UN soldiers in the country, as well as 1,700 UN police officers. Some 100 soldiers have been killed in Mali so far, with hundreds more seriously injured.

A german solider in front of a truck in Mali
German soldiers have been stationed in Mali since 2013Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. heine

Neu argued that Germany was allowing itself to be dragged into the conflict without properly reflecting on its origins. "These are conflicts that the West also has to take some of the responsibility for," he said. "The situation in Mali can't be explained without talking about NATO's toppling of the regime in Libya. It was only after that the problems in Mali began. For me it doesn't seem credible to send more troops there without even mentioning the fall of [Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi and drawing the consequences from that." 

Germany also is planning for a year-long extension of the Bundeswehr's contribution to the UN mission in Darfur, South Sudan, and its contribution to the NATO Sea Guardian mission in the Mediterranean, which is supposed to secure shipping routes.

Germany currently has a total of 3,900 soldiers in active operations around the world.

Can the Bundeswehr manage?

In recent months, the German military has been dogged by stories of equipment shortages and underfunding, leading to a general perception that the Bundeswehr is under-prepared in Europe. Some soldiers have already criticized von der Leyen's new ambitions.

The Darmstädter Signal, a "critical forum of citizens in uniform" that views itself as a military watchdog organization, said the army would struggle to fulfill the extra commitments. "No, it won't manage it," spokesman Florian Kling told broadcaster SWR. "We don't even have the planes to get our soldiers to the foreign missions. The situation with personnel and equipment is so tight that the Bundeswehr is actually close to collapse."

Kling also said that expanding the mission in Iraq would make it more dangerous for German soldiers. "Where troops are in movement, they will be in danger of touching mines and being attacked by terrorists," he said. "It can really only end badly."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight