German general breaks silence on Afghanistan

BERLIN — Breaking with a military tradition of keeping silent about policy, a top German general has branded his country’s efforts in Afghanistan a failure, singling out its poor record in training the Afghan police and allocating development aid.

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The comments came from General Hans-Christoph Ammon, head of the army’s elite special commando unit, or KSK, whose officers are in Afghanistan fighting alongside U.S. forces against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Germany was responsible for training the Afghan police, but the German Interior Ministry, led by the conservative Wolfgang Schauble, has come under repeated criticism from the United States and other NATO allies for providing too few experts and inappropriate training.

The training scheme was «a miserable failure,» Ammon told DPA, the German press agency, after describing the German record in Afghanistan to a gathering last week of a reservists’ association. The government had provided a mere 12 million euros for training the Afghan Army and police while the United States has already given more than $1 billion, he said.

«At that rate, it would take 82 years to have a properly trained police force,» he said. More damaging for Germany’s reputation, Ammon said, was that its police-training mission was considered such a «disaster» that the United States and EU had taken over responsibility.

The Defense Ministry said Ammon was expressing his personal views. Even so, because such views are rare, security experts said they showed the level of frustration building among senior military officers over German reluctance to provide adequate financing for Afghan mission or even explain to the public why Germany has 4,500 soldiers there.

Neither Chancellor Angela Merkel nor her conservative defense minister, Franz-Josef Jung, have been willing to debate the issue publicly.

For the first time since German soldiers were sent to Afghanistan six years ago, Jung referred in November to the «Gefallene,» or fallen soldiers, who had died there.

Until now, any German soldiers killed in Afghanistan were referred to as casualties. In addition, the word «Krieg,» or war, has been banned from use in any Defense Ministry public statements or speeches, say advisers to the ministry.

«I keep saying that it is time the public was told why we are in Afghanistan, what is happening there and what we are doing there,» said Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, general secretary of the Christian Social Union, the allied party of the Christian Democrats led by Merkel.

Merkel, who has visited Afghanistan just once in three years in office, said in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that she was prepared to defend the mission in Afghanistan in the national election campaign next year. That could be a high-risk strategy given that the mission is highly unpopular with the public.

The foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat who will run against Merkel to become chancellor, supports the mission.

But as foreign minister, he has to strike a balance between defending the war and taking account of the unpopularity of it. The pacifist wing in his party opposes keeping German troops there, particularly given the increasing attacks.

Two Afghan civilians were killed Sunday by a suicide bomber after he had strapped explosives to his body, targeting a vehicle used by German military attaches, the Afghan police said. No Germans were wounded.

Merkel, who will give a major speech Monday at the congress of her Christian Democratic Union party, is coming under pressure from a small group of defense and foreign policy advisers inside and outside her party to address the subject of Afghanistan.

The matter is considered urgent because President-elect Barack Obama has made Afghanistan a foreign policy priority. NATO officials said last week that they were expecting the incoming U.S. administration to ask NATO allies to contribute more troops and experts in order to beat back the Taliban and train up an Afghan Army and police force.

Only then, Obama has said, can the Afghan forces take responsibility for the security of their own country.

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DEL