A mistranslated statement by General David Petraeus, from a new set of guidelines for troops in Afghanistan, led some German government officials to believe that troops would be intensifying their involvement.
German media believed Petraeus was calling for targeted killings
"Obama's general: Tear into the Taliban" - a dramatic headline that wouldn't be out of place in a tabloid. But this headline is from Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily newspaper, generally seen as a quality news source.
And the online edition of the intellectual weekly paper Die Zeit, from the same publisher, heads its story on the subject with this particularly vicious extract: "Rip your teeth into the flesh of the insurgents."
The message comes, apparently, from a statement by United States General David Petraeus, commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, of which Germany is a part. Petraeus released a new set of guidelines to the troops under his command on Sunday.
Interpreting the text, Der Tagesspiegel concluded that "targeted killings are apparently central to [Petraeus'] strategy." Die Zeit went so far as to leave out the restrictive word 'apparently' altogether.
With headlines like these, it seemed to some as Germany's troops would soon be gearing up to join the United States in a new, more violent, strategy in the Afghanistan mission. An assumption that, as it turned out, was entirely false and the result of a simple mistranslation.
Not a call to violence
German troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001
"The misunderstanding of one sentence from these three-and-a-half pages and the subject of targeted killing is - one might say - shortsighted," Christian Dienst, the spokesman for the German Defense Ministry, told reporters in Berlin on Monday.
His view is especially valid when the sentence is properly translated. In Petraeus' original statement, the sentence reads: "Get your teeth into the insurgents and don't let go" - not so much a call to violence as an encouragement for troops to stay the course and not give up.
Petraeus continues: "When the extremists fight, make them pay. Seek out and eliminate those who threaten the population. Don't let them intimidate the innocent. Target the whole network, not just individuals."
For the average citizen, it all sounds somewhat menacing. Dienst, himself a navy captain who was stationed in the US for two years, reads it differently.
"If we consider the cultural background of the person who issued these orders, it's just written in a typical American style - in a language easily understood by everyone," he said. He added that the same goes for every other section of the guidelines - even the recommendation that soldiers "drink lots of tea with the local citizens."
'Be a good guest'
Except for the misquoted passage, the guidelines focus almost exclusively on recommendations to help troops cultivate trust and cooperation with the local population. Petraeus says soldiers should be there for the Afghan people, protect them from the Taliban and also from incompetent and corrupt governmental authorities.
Petraeus told troops to treat the locals with respect
"Be a good guest. Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect […] Use only the firepower needed to win a fight," Petraeus said.
The guidelines don't apply only to US troops, but to all soldiers in the Petraeus-led, NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), of which the Germans have been a part for nearly a decade.
But even if the recommendations had included a call to increase the targeted killing of insurgents, German troops wouldn't be subject to that order.
"Naturally, the limitations imposed on the German participants in the Afghanistan mission still remain in effect," said Christoph Steegmanns, spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
And that means that German soldiers will continue to do what they've been ordered to do - arrest and hold insurgents, and not engage in targeted killing.
Author: Peter Stuetzle/cmk
Editor: Nancy Isenson