MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The German armed forces will continue as the lead forces in the north of Afghanistan after 2014, ushering in a new era for the country’s military operations abroad.
Maj. Gen. Jörg Vollmer, regional commander north for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, noted that Germany was the first to announce participation in a follow-on assist-and-advise mission in 2015, after the deadline for the withdrawal of NATO combat forces.
The number of German servicemembers — currently headquartered at Camp Marmal in Balkh province, near the capital city of Mazar-e-Sharif — in the new mission will be small in comparison with the current contingent — slashed from about 5,000 at the height of the war, to just 600-800. The government has also said that the troops would be there for about two to three years, after which the commitment would be re-evaluated.
Still, the decision has highlighted Berlin’s willingness to continue participating in the international war effort in Afghanistan — something German public opinion has long frowned upon. A recent German Press Agency poll found that just nine percent of respondents said they expect a successful completion of the NATO mission.
“It’s in our interest, and in the [German] population’s as well, that they ascertain that this was not something that has been done just for a certain time, and then we leave it alone,” said Vollmer. “Germany is taking it very seriously.”
The low profile of the German military role in the international community may be something of the past. For a long time after World War II, German military missions abroad were publicly touted as purely defensive or humanitarian.
As of now, it’s likely that the Germans will be the second largest supplier of troops to the mission in Afghanistan after 2014. The armed forces also are engaged in other deployments around the world, including Kosovo, Lebanon and the Horn of Africa. Of the country’s 195,000 servicemembers, 6,500 are deployed on missions abroad at any one time.
According to Vollmer, Germany’s decision to continue investing time and money to provide ongoing assistance to Afghanistan is a strong statement of political will.
“In such a situation, where one mission ends, and you have the upcoming elections (in Afghanistan), and Germany decides to open a consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, it’s a very strong political sign,” said Vollmer. “We have already announced that we will, per year, give another 430 million euro. That’s quite a number. Therefore, it’s important to have that linked up with a small, but as we see it, important, military engagement as well.”
The mission in the north of Afghanistan has yielded relatively low casualties for Germany. The military has sustained 54 deaths, including one in early May, the first fatality since June of 2011.
The vast majority of its patrols are focused near the base, providing security for the facility. Other nations, including the U.S. and Sweden, routinely patrol farther away from their bases, for such missions as route clearance and EOD operations.
For the Germans, the post-2014 assist-and-advise mission — dubbed Operation Resolute Support — is their key talking point, and they hardly stray away from it.
“We always have to acknowledge that all of us, all ISAF nations, have built up Afghan National Security Forces from the scratch. In 2002, there was nearly no police, there was no army, there was only to a certain degree Afghan border police, and all these security forces have been built up from zero, and now they have the strength of approximately 350,000,” said Vollmer.
“Sometimes, in situations where we get this feeling that there are still some gaps, we will use the time until the end of 2014 to fill these gaps, and to provide them the capabilities they need, but again, afterwards it’s focusing on training and assisting, and tweaking these last few things that have to be fixed,” he said.
On the Afghan side of things, they’re much more vocal on the list of things they need.
“Sometimes we dig up IEDs (improved explosive devices) by shovel, but the Route Clearance Company should have special things to do this with, not shovels,” said Capt. Abdul Qaher, with a demining company from the Afghan army’s 3rd Brigade, 209th Corps, based at Forward Operating Base Spann.
“We need everything from air support, to even small cameras just to take pictures of the IEDs, so we can learn and show our partners. These are things we need,” he said.
Still, the mission in the north is being described as one of true international cooperation. There are currently 17 nations serving in RC-North, more than any other regional command.
Vollmer uses the example to show the Afghans how they can overcome their rivalries, and some even deeper tribal and ethnic conflicts.
“These are nations where my grandfather fought the grandfather of [current soldiers from] some of the other nations,” he said, adding that his staff included officers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro, nations that gained independence in the civil wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia 20 years ago.
“When I was a lieutenant colonel I was in Yugoslavia, and we tried to bring peace to this war-torn country then. And imagine, 15 years later, officers from these countries, who fought each other ... are serving here together to bring peace to Afghanistan.”