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Prepared to Fight?

DW staff (nda)November 28, 2006

Germany is one of four European countries which could lose non-combat caveats awarded to certain nations involved in NATO missions in Afghanistan. The alliance meets in Riga Tuesday and could rescind the right to refuse.

Could German ISAF troops soon be joining their US counterparts on the front line?Image: AP

Tensions over the future of NATO's role in Afghanistan will be at the fore of the alliance's summit in Riga which begins Tuesday.

The heads of NATO governments will be in Latvia mainly to discuss the tactics of an operation which is now, for all intents and purposes, a war deployment. Part of these tactical discussions are believed to include the withdrawal of certain non-combat privileges for certain countries which could mean German troops, amongst others, being redeployed into combat zones.

Germany -- along with France, Spain and Italy -- are currently the holders of so-called "red card" national caveats that allow them to keep their troops away from the most dangerous areas of operations in Afghanistan.

These "red cards" were initially negotiated into agreements at the beginning of the NATO operation by countries willing to aid security and reconstruction in Afghanistan. However, in exchange for their pledged support, the countries could opt out of certain operations whenever they chose to do so.

NATO commanders say these caveats hamper the ability to move forces for missions and rescue other NATO forces that may get into trouble.

Bundeswehr in Afghansitan
German troops have a reconstruction mandateImage: AP

Some of the countries with "red cards" negotiated restrictions on the deployment which included whether troops were allowed to conduct missions at night, which parts of Afghanistan they could patrol and whether they were permitted to conduct offensive operations against the Taliban.

Those NATO forces who have been involved in fighting the resurgent Taliban have been suffering from overstretch and have been reportedly taking heavy casualties as the fierce Afghan winter prepares to make operations even more difficult for the alliance.

NATO credibility at stake as combat forces suffer

Some senior diplomats and military officials have complained that the credibility of NATO is at stake and that the alliance is on the back foot in combat operations due to the fact that only a handful of countries are actively involved in fighting the insurgency.

A recent NATO report showed that 90 per cent of casualties suffered by troops serving with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have come from just four countries: the US, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. With these nations charged with battling the Taliban across the whole country, NATO chiefs are likely to make the rescinding of the "red cards" a priority of the Riga summit.

ISAF Britische Soldaten patroulieren zusammen mit afghanischen Soldaten durch Kabul, Afghanistan
The British are among those taking casualtiesImage: AP

There is already a simmering resentment between NATO countries over the lack of combat support for missions such as the mainly Canadian-led Operation Medusa of this summer. The Canadians were supported by troops from the US, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark during the offensive in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan and faced dogged resistance as well as logistical and support problems.

Germany faces further pressure

If the "red cards" are rescinded, NATO could apply pressure on the German government to send the Bundeswehr into combat should any of the other ISAF nations be "in extremis," as NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer put it Monday.

Sicherheitslage in Afghanistan Bundeswehr
The Bundeswehr is mainly based in the north and KabulImage: AP

Despite making it clear in statements two months ago that it would be wrong for the German contingent to move south and leave the north open, de Hoop Scheffer now seems determined to persuade all members that troops, regardless of nationality and area of deployment in Afghanistan, should be ready to engage the enemy when NATO and circumstances call for it.

The German army has 2,900 troops in northern Afghanistan as part of the 30,000-strong NATO mission and also supports forces in the south with air transports.

Germany agreed in September to keep troops in northern Afghanistan for another 12 months, but said it would not join the NATO forces in the south where violence has been escalating.