What use are the Germans?

Something that has been on my mind for a while and Gerard Baker reminded me of it with his column in The Times today. What use are the Germans?

As the West fights a global war on terror the Germans, among others (sadly they are not alone), are sitting on their hands, watching from the sidelines, and hoping for the best.

They might have some 7,700 troops overseas, 2,800 of whom are part of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, but unlike Britain, the US, Canada and a pocketful of others the Germans aren’t there as combat troops. Actually I’m not really sure what they are doing.

German troops along with those from most of the rest of Europe are sent to Afghanistan under tight restrictions that largely prohibit them from engaging in combat operations, or from patrolling at night. This includes, as Baker mentions, not flying at night – hey, I hear it, everyone hates the red eye.

“It soon became clear that the replacement plane was not coming. The reason, it turned out, was that the Germans would not fly in the dark. German aircraft are not permitted by their national rules to undertake night flights,” Baker writes.

“When you are trying to fight a war against a ruthless band of terrorists who operate 24/7, never pausing to consider the dangers of venturing out in the dark, limiting yourself to daytime operations is a little constraining.”

You think. We are in trouble in Afghanistan, that much is clear, but no one wants to help as recently witnessed with the Nato call for more combat troops to go to the South of the country falling on deaf ears (other than Canada and Poland, who contributed 900 troops). We all know why it fell on deaf ears. No one in Europe is prepared for the hard sell of losing dozens of troops fighting the resurgent Taliban, but that’s what it is going to take. That’s what it always takes.

The result of this is clear, the burden is shared by the few, as summed up by a recently published Congressional Research Service paper:

“These governments tend to be reluctant to send their forces out into the field to confront the Taliban and control warlords and their militias. The result, in this view, has been that British and Canadian [ISAF] and US forces [Operation Enduring Freedom] bear a disproportionate share of the most dangerous tasks.

“Berlin was adamant that German forces would not engage in combat operations; according to Nato officials, the German caveat against combat has limited the alliance in integrating German forces with those of other allied governments.

“These officials say that German troops and civilians rarely venture beyond the perimeter of the [provincial reconstruction teams] due to concern they might arouse Afghan public criticism or come into contact with armed elements. German troops reportedly do not go on extended patrols and do not respond to local security incidents.”

So much for winning hearts and minds.

It’s not just the Germans, of course, there are the Dutch as well (previous passive military accomplishments: Srebrenica massacre). The congressional study goes on to say that Dutch commanders on the ground in Afghanistan reportedly insisted to Nato counterparts that no Dutch troops must be killed in combat.

The Dutch were apparently told this “was unrealistic”. Who would have guessed. Any use they might be doing could come to an end anyway with parliamentary elections in the Autumn, which could result in the Netherlands withdrawing its 1,700 professional bystanders.

So far, so useless. Something needs to change, Germany needs to pull its weight as one of the world’s leading industrial powers and not drag its feet and hide under the covers. History has moved on, we’re over it.

And maybe something is astir. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke earlier this week and promised to “meet this new situation by raising military spending in the medium and long- term to bring the political responsibility together with the military necessity”.

But how and when? Merkel did not give any further details. Maybe she could start by allowing her planes to fly at night.