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Small but good

June 23, 2010

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is on a two-day trip to visit troops on the Horn of Africa and Cyprus. He has stressed that, although smaller, their missions are still important.

The German frigate 'Karlsruhe' anchored in Djibouti
Germany is paring down several naval missions to cut costsImage: AP

Defense Minister Guttenberg's two-day tour to the Horn of Africa and Cyprus is a message to his troops that, despite cuts to the overall size of the German military and its budget, the missions they are involved in are still important.

The East African enclave is the land base for two international missions involving the German Navy. Operation Enduring Freedom searches for terrorists and is NATO's response to the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.

The European Union mission Atalanta is working to protect shipping lanes from pirates in the Indian Ocean.

Cyprus is the base for the United Nations mission, UNIFIL, which patrols the eastern Mediterranean to intercept weapons destined for Lebanon.

Two missions for the price of one

Guttenberg is expected to fold two missions into one on his visit to Djibouti. The defense minister has quietly opted to terminate Germany's participation in Operation Enduring Freedom. The last 90 troops complete their tours of duty on June 30th.

Instead of tracking down terrorists in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, a vast area of nearly 5.5 million square kilometers, Guttenberg wants to concentrate German efforts on stopping the rampant hijackings of commercial ships by Somali pirates in the same area.

German soldiers seizing a pirate vessel off Somalia
Securing shipping lanes against pirates is not an easy task in the vast Indian OceanImage: Bundeswehr

"If we take a look right now at the Horn of Africa mission, there are very different mandates which play a role, and which the public, to some extent, is not even aware of. For that reason, it is important to me to demonstrate that our current missions are not all about Afghanistan," the defense minister said.

The terrorist threat off the Horn of Africa still exists, but Guttenberg argues that Europe's Atalanta anti-piracy mission can still be used for that purpose, if the need arises.

Atalanta involves 250 German troops, mostly on board the frigate "Schleswig Holstein", and a sophisticated surveillance aircraft that patrols the region, taking high-resolution pictures.

Germany to stay in the Mediterranean

On Thursday, the defense minister is to fly to Cyprus to inspect the UNIFIL mission.

Germany has been involved in that mission off the coast of Lebanon since 2006 and recently extended its mandate for another year, after being expressly asked by Lebanon and Israel to stay.

A German Bundeswehr helicopter flying around a UNIFIL naval unit off the coast of Lebanon
Lebanon and Israel have asked Germany to continue the UNIFIL missionImage: AP

Although the size of the German contingent will be reduced from 500 to 300, the task remains the same: to stop weapons smuggling, mostly by Hezbollah, into southern Lebanon that could threaten Israel's security.

Rainer Stinner, a defense expert in Germany's Free Democrat party, gives three reasons why the UNIFIL mission is so important.

"This is about guaranteeing Israel's right to exist in secure borders. Secondly, it's about building a viable Palestinian state; and thirdly, it's about stabilizing the state of Lebanon," Stinner said.

Before leaving for Djibouti on Wednesday, Minister Guttenberg again voiced strong support for all the German naval missions, stressing however that the anti-piracy mission was a high priority for Berlin. Securing trade routes, the minister said, was in Germany's interest.

Author: Gregg Benzow (dpa/AP)
Editor: Andreas Illmer