January 29, 2002

Possible German Command for Afghanistan?

F.A.Z BERLIN. The possibility of Germany taking command of the international security force in Afghanistan will be high on the agenda when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder visits Washington this week, German officials said on Monday.

The chief German government spokesman, Uwe-Karsten Heye, said there had not yet been any official request, but confirmed that Mr. Schröder was prepared to discuss Germany's ability and willingness to take on the assignment when he holds talks at the White House on Thursday with U.S. President George W. Bush.

The German parliament agreed on Dec. 23 to supply up to 1,200 troops to the Afghanistan security force -- plans are now for about 1,000 to be sent -- but backed away from a leadership role, citing limited resources and the country's relative lack of experience in heading such military missions.

Mr. Heye said a prerequisite for German leadership of the mission, which is operating under the auspices of the United Nations, would be a reduced role for Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, in Macedonia. Germany heads a North Atlantic Treaty Organization protection force for European observers in that troubled Balkan state.

"The Bundeswehr can't do both," Mr. Heye said, adding that it was too early to say definitively if the security situation in Macedonia would remain stable enough to allow a reduced German presence there.

Currently led by Britain, which is not eager to hold the command indefinitely, the Afghanistan mission has a mandate that runs through June 20. But diplomats say an extension is likely as the transitional Afghan government sets about rebuilding the country with the backing of Western and other foreign governments.

Germany has an advance contingent of about 300 troops already in Afghanistan. They have undertaken some patrols while making preparations for the main deployment, including some 500 Germans expected next week.

According to government sources, the Bundeswehr could take over command of the mission in April, although the general secretary of the governing Social Democratic Party, Franz Müntefering, sounded less than enthusiastic when asked to comment in the absence of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was traveling outside of Berlin.

"We're satisfied with what we have," the Social Democrat said.

A German decision to head the force would not be entirely welcome in German military circles, amid continuing concerns that years of shrinking budgets and increasing peacekeeping commitments have left the Bundeswehr stretched thin in terms of manpower and equipment.

Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping's spokesman, Franz Borkenhagen, said that "if it's up to us" to head the mission, then the government would have to increase funding. The Defense Ministry said over the weekend that it was not planning to take command.

Colonel Bernhard Gertz, who heads the German Federal Armed Forces Association, which represents soldiers, said that "the Bundeswehr has neither the equipment nor the personnel to lead the security force" as long as Germany maintains a major commitment in Macedonia. The only way Germany could take over the leadership of the Afghanistan mission, he added, would be to initiate "an extensive withdrawal of German troops from the Balkans."

Mr. Schröder's government has steadily moved toward greater German military involvement abroad, something that was a political taboo until the 1990s. Taking leadership of the high-profile Afghanistan mission would mark a further major step in that direction.

But the military says the government has not backed up its foreign policy ambitions with sufficient funding.
Jan. 28

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2001
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or
in part is prohibited.