Bundeswehr Blues

Never during its four-year deployment has the German Bundeswehr's contingent in Afghanistan gotten such a rash of coverage. Two weeks ago, the troops were at the center of the "Skulls Affair," after a tabloid published photographs from 2003 of soldiers posing with old skulls they'd found in a clay pit next to a former Soviet outpost. Then, last week, Germans were scandalized by revelations that a special-forces unit stationed in Oman had stenciled on the door of its jeep a palm tree and Iron Cross vaguely reminiscent of the Wehrmacht's famed Afrika Korps under Erwin (Desert Fox) Rommel. Just this weekend, Germans were shocked yet again by fresh allegations that a German soldier in 2002 put a gun to an Afghan child's head as a macabre "joke." Banner headlines called the incidents germany's abu ghraib. Commentators questioned the sense of Germany's Afghanistan mission. A survey released last week showed 73 percent of Germans want the Bundeswehr to cut back its foreign engagements.

Reality check, anyone? Distasteful these incidents were, yes. But they hardly reflect upon Germany's 2,700 soldiers in Afghanistan the way prisoner abuses and alle-gations of torture discredited America's reputation in Iraq. If anything, the tizzy illustrates a growing nervousness on the home front. With the German Navy deploying on the coast of Lebanon last week and fresh worries that German peacekeepers in Congo may not be home as planned by Christmas, the country seems only now to be wak-ing up to its new global military role. So far, Germany's missions have been mainly humanitarian, largely avoiding both having to kill and the risk of getting killed. With growing unease, Germans are beginning to realize that things aren't likely to stay that way.

The pace of change has indeed been unsettling. It took a constitutional-court ruling in 1994 to permit German soldiers to be deployed abroad at all. Today, close to 10,000 Bundeswehr troops find themselves stationed in places as far-flung as Bosnia, Djibouti and southern Sudan--where the Germans patrol streets, dig wells and build schools. That much Germans have gotten used to, and it suits their self-image as a power that doesn't do the nasty things others (like the Americans) do. Says Jan Techau of the German Coun-cil on Foreign Relations, "The idea of Germans waging war is still a great taboo."

But all of a sudden, Germany seems to be inching toward breaking that taboo. As the Skulls Affair broke, it all but drowned out Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung's release that same day of the so-called White Book, the first comprehensive German security strategy since 1994. "The Bundeswehr is to be thoroughly restructured into an intervention force," the 133-page paper asserts. Though fastidiously avoiding the word "combat"--speaking instead of "peace-creating interventions" and "robust mandates"--it clearly promises an end to the Bundeswehr's special role as a humanitarian-only Army.

That future may be closer than most Germans wish. In Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban has led to rapidly worsening security, with more than 150 NATO casualties this year. The Germans, stationed in the largely peaceful north, haven't suffered any casualties except after one bloody suicide attack in 2004. They've also refused to send more than a communications unit to help British, Dutch and Canadian units in the much more dangerous south. But pressure on them to do more is mounting, with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Berlin last Tuesday making another plea for reinforcements.

But is the Bundeswehr ready? Vastly underfinanced and underequipped, it has to charter Ukrainian planes and the Danish Navy to transport equipment. Recruits train on ancient equipment, often seeing current matériel only once they deploy. Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the former German commander in Kosovo, tells NEWSWEEK that only 50 percent of the Germans' vehicles in Afghanistan are properly armored--or, rather, used to be, as many of them have since been siphoned off to Congo. Despite much prodding from its allies, Germany budgets only 1.5 percent of its GDP for defense, compared with 2.5 percent for France and Britain.

Will that change? The Bundeswehr has gained some strange allies among German politicians. Leftist Social Democrats and once-peacenik Greens have lately been pushing "humanitarian interventionism" with, if need be, military means. Ex-radical Green politician Jürgen Trittin is nicknamed "Congo Jürgen" by fellow parliamentarians for his fierce lobbying for Bundeswehr deployment to stem civil strife in Africa; others advocate sending the German Army to Darfur. They've also helped Chancellor Angela Merkel push through the first defense-budget raise in years, though it's barely enough to cover inflation and wage hikes. Here, too, the Germans are only getting around to the idea that their once-cozy role has ended.