German Soldiers in Afghanistan Can’t Shoot

Leaked reports question the competence of the German army.

“German soldiers mostly don’t know how to use their weapons.” They “have no or little experience driving armored vehicles.” For German field commanders, “the necessity and ways [to protect their units from roadside bombs] are to a large extent either unknown or incorrect.”

These are quotes from a series of secret internal reports on the German army, the Bundeswehr, whose 5,000 soldiers in the northern Kunduz sector of Afghanistan were supposed to help the U.S. rout the Taliban and stabilize the country over the past 10 years.

The reports are from 2009 and 2010 and were leaked to the Bild, a German tabloid that is Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper. But they are an indication of the poor state of the Bundeswehr, which only two years ago even started fighting in Afghanistan. Before that, they weren’t allowed to shoot except in self-defense, and only after they had shouted repeated warnings in the local language.

The secret reports bemoan German soldiers’ outdated training and antiquated, insufficient equipment. German forces could not operate if it weren’t for Ukrainian cargo planes and American helicopters and their U.S. Army crews, most crucially the Chinook troop transports and Black Hawk MedEvac helicopters that ensure Bundeswehr soldiers can get into and out of their battles quickly and safely. Considering Obama’s announcement about the beginning of the pullout of U.S. forces, the Bundeswehr couldn’t even fight in terrain like Afghanistan’s if it wanted to. “If the Americans pull out of the north, the Germans will stand there in very short skirts,” says Bundeswehr General and former NATO Commander Egon Ramms.

Since the concept of actually fighting is still so new for the German army, training and equipment upgrades have only recently begun. It wasn’t until 2010, for example, that the Bundeswehr issued new “small arms guidelines” requiring more live ammo training at close range instead of practicing at long distances from hilltops or trenches.

Years after it first stationed thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2002, the Bundeswehr was still frozen in time, sticking to Cold War scenarios of large battles on the wide-open North German Plain that would involve clashing armies, tank battles, and fighter jets engaged in air-to-air dogfights. Luckily, none of this is the least bit likely to happen. Soldiers now train in the kind of close-range combat involved in battling insurgents. But the transformation takes time. Before it was finally permitted to fight in 2009, the Bundeswehr didn’t have a single officer with combat experience who might provide some practical advice to defense ministry bureaucrats in charge of the reforms.

Yet as the Bundeswehr brass inch forward to a more useful and active role for their army, politicians in Berlin are putting the brakes back on. Defense Minister Thomas De Maizière has announced budget cuts that will lower military expenditures to only 1 percent of German GDP in 2015, from 1.3 percent now. That’s nowhere near the 2 percent threshold agreed to for NATO countries, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once again chided Germany and other laggard NATO allies last week (of the 28 NATO allies, only the U.S., Britain, and France, plus tiny Greece and Albania, spend more than the minimum). The cuts also mean that urgent upgrades in equipment and training will either take longer or not happen at all.

Add to that a foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who has promised to make Germany "a leader in peace and disarmament," and who has aligned Germany with Russia and China in opposing any help for the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya, and it’s not so sure German soldiers will be all that much better at shooting any time soon.