The bodies of three German soldiers killed in northern Afghanistan last week by an Afghan colleague have been flown home. The attack has led to fears over the safety of ‘partnering’ German and Afghan soldiers.
The three soldiers were flown back to Germany on Monday. They had been part of a partnering protect set up by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in which the Bundeswehr works closely with Afghan army and police units.
The soldier, from the Afghan National Army, opened fire on German troops inside a base in Baghlan province on Friday, killing the three soldiers and wounding six others. The shooting occurred as the soldiers were carrying out maintenance on a vehicle; the attacker had apparently been part of their group and entered the compound with the German soldiers.
The ISAF established the “partnering” strategy last year in an effort to prepare Afghans to take charge of security in their country after 2014. It called for joint patrols and jointly conducted missions against the Taliban.
It was the first time that German soldiers were targeted within the framework of ISAF’s partnering project. But several British and American military instructors have also been killed in Southern Afghanistan by members of Afghan security forces while on partnering operations over the past two years.
Worst attack on Bundeswehr in a year
The incident has shocked German troops in Afghanistan. Several German soldiers have been quoted anonymously on the Spiegel Online website as saying they were wary of their Afghan colleagues and no longer wanted to work with them. “We are expected to train them, but they regard us as infidels who shouldn’t be in their country in the first place,” said one soldier.
The German Army has begun an investigation into the shooting. But German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg warned against questioning the entire concept.
“We believe this is the right way to achieve the goal of handing over responsibility,” the minister said.
Most security experts agree that there is no alternative. “It is an essential element in strengthening and reforming Afghan security forces,” Cornelius Friesendorf, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt told Deutsche Welle.
But Friesendorf conceded that the scheme could be problematic. “The Taliban and other armed opposition groups are very smart, they try to infiltrate the Afghan security forces, they also bribe people to work for them,” he said, and pointed out that many Afghans don’t really trust international forces so they hedge their bets.
“This makes them be very cautious to work with international forces and then be described as traitors in their own communities.”
To minimize the obvious risk, Friesendorf said, prospective Afghan soldiers should be more carefully vetted before being given a uniform and, more importantly, a weapon.
The German researcher pointed out that partnering also requires cultural sensitivity and understanding on the part of the international forces. He said it was different from simply being a combat soldier: “In Afghanistan, it is important to make sure that trainees do not lose face. That means if someone doesn’t know how to handle a weapon, or acts inappropriately, the partner should take that person aside and tell him, face to face, without his colleagues being able to overhear the conversation.”
That might be asking too much. One German officer told Spiegel Online that he thought the partnership wouldn’t work. “The chemistry between them and us simply doesn’t work,” he said.
Training the Afghans is necessary and possible, he added. But rather than using soldiers from the West and America, it would be preferable if they were from countries where the cultural differences aren’t as great. “I am certain that Turkish soldiers would be better equipped,” he said.
About 5,000 German troops serve in northern Afghanistan as part of the US-led NATO force of 140,000. Friday’s attack brings the number of German soldiers killed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the mission in 2001 to 48.