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While Coming to Terms With its Own History, Is the German Military Increasing its Global Presence?

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On the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue hosted by Bahraini King Hamad ibn Isa al Khalifa and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, German Deputy Defense Minister Christian Schmidt articulated a changing trend within his country's defense establishment as Berlin is embracing its own national interests for the first time since the 1990s. "Only twenty years ago, an independent German defense policy would have been inconceivable; our foreign policy was anchored within the framework presented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU)." Now, ever since the 2006 "White Book" was launched to serve as a new defense strategy, the Bundeswehr will be deployed to actively protect and safeguard commercial trading routes by land and by sea, far beyond Germany's national boundaries, Schmidt said.

On the other hand, Germany's increased NATO engagement in Afghanistan has also served as a catalyst for a vigorous domestic debate, as the public is deeply divided over whether its troops should serve in combat operations -- or be limited to capacity building and humanitarian assistance. In particular, following a deadly 2009 airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in the northern Kunduz province, Afghan officials said up to 142 people were killed in the early morning raid. While the airstrike was carried out by U.S. F-15 fighter jets, the order was given by German Colonel Georg Klein after militants seized two NATO fuel trucks.

Although Klein was initially investigated for wrongdoings, the charges were later dismissed after the Colonel appeared before a Bundestag investigative committee. According to a statement released by his attorney before being summoned before lawmakers, Klein defended his order of striking the fuel trucks as "the decision was made on the best available intelligence at the time." Yet, despite his acquittal from further prosecutions, Schmidt argued that the Klein affair had caused great tensions between the Berlin political establishment, its military -- and the population at large.

While Germans are still seeking to define their post World War II identity, the two bombs dropped in Kunduz in the early morning of September 4, 2009 shook Germany's self-image to its core: The issue of collateral damage, according to Schmidt, unleashed a new debate over the Bundeswehr's role in German society. "Today, there is a friendly non-interest in our armed forces. Paradoxically, the least protected people in Germany today are our men and women in uniform."

Afghanistan, comparable to war?

As the war in Afghanistan lingers into its ninth year, the Bundeswehr has suffered over 40 casualties, 30 of them in combat since the 2001 invasion. Hence, while the situation in Afghanistan has become increasingly clearer to the German public, it was arguably the Klein saga that forced Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to redefine Berlin's Afghan role from "humanitarian" to what his government now defines as "comparable to war." "War," deputy minister Schmidt said is still a concept most Germans are uncomfortable with.

German optimism on Afghanistan

Despite a grim assessment shared by many European leaders suggesting that a military victory against the Taliban cannot be achieved, Schmidt lauded General David Petraeus' war strategy as he was very optimistic that the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) headed by the US Commander would not fail in Afghanistan. Taking a contrarian position from a seemingly reached consensus at the 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, the German deputy defense minister did not foresee a 2014 withdrawal date of combat forces from Afghanistan. However, 2014 will serve as a "reassessment" of the situation in the war torn country, as German defense planners instead will aim for a "flexible date" to turn control over to the Afghan authorities.

Beyond Afghanistan, and in line with its 2006 "White Book military doctrine," Germany has deployed 1,400 troops to naval bases in Djibouti and in Mombasa, Kenya to assist EU's Naval Force's (EUNAVFOR) counter-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden and in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, German naval vessels are also participating in joint patrolling exercises through the Strait of Hormuz while assisting U.S. and NATO forces to secure the Persian Gulf from Somali pirates and from an increasingly assertive Iran threatening its Arab neighbors through its controversial nuclear program.