Much has been made by various commentators in recent months about the negative impact national caveats are having on Nato/ISAF operational capabilities in Afghanistan. As well as affecting operational effectiveness, such caveats – which place self-imposed restrictions on the way in which individual national forces may be deployed – are having a corrosive effect on relations between contributing Nato countries, and on overall ISAF morale.
Although forces from all 26 Nato member states are deployed in Afghanistan, only Britain, America, Canada, Denmark and Holland have not used caveats to limit the rules of engagement of their troops. While the French, Italians and Spanish have all come in for criticism in the past, particular ire has been directed at the German contingent, whose forces may only be deployed in a non-combat role in the relatively peaceful north.
Such criticism is only likely to intensify following the revelation yesterday by Der Spiegel that an important Taliban commander – said to be responsible for the November 2007 Baghlan bombing which killed 79 people, including dozens of children – was allowed to escape by German KSK special forces as they were not authorised to use lethal force.
The case has caused disquiet at the headquarters of the ISAF peacekeeping force in Kabul. The current strategy for fighting the enemy is to buy as many Taliban sympathizers as possible, to at least win them over for a while — and to “eliminate” the hardliners through targeted assassinations.
From a military point of view, the so-called targeting has been a success. Close to one-third of the Taliban leaders, about 150 commanders, have since been “neutralized,” meaning they are either dead or captured. Most of the capture-or-kill missions, as the operations are called in military jargon, are undertaken by British or American special forces.
But so far the Germans haven’t wanted to take part. And that causes problems, because the insurgents are increasingly gaining influence in the nine provinces under German command.
Nonetheless, even in a time of growing threats in Afghanistan, Berlin is sticking to its “principle of proportionality,” stressed one high-ranking official in the Defense Ministry. A fugitive like the Baghlan bomber is not an aggressor and should not be shot unless necessary, the official explains.
Soldiers from Britain’s British Special Air Service or the US’s Delta Force are less bothered about such hair-splitting. For them, this is a war in which it comes down to “kill or be killed,” say sources in military circles in Kabul. The “targets” are identified, tracked down and — often with the help of laser-guided weapons systems — “eliminated.”
The Germans have considerable misgivings about such an approach. They have secretly given “clarification notes” to NATO with far-ranging instructions for their soldiers which expressly contradict the usual procedures: “The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is taking place or is imminent.” Sources in NATO circles regard the confidential document as a “national exception,” a caveat which places restrictions on operational capability. The Germans, for their part, always avoid using the word caveat, out of diplomatic considerations vis-à-vis their allies.
The most remarkable thing about the secret document is its stated justification. The German government considers its allies’ approach as “not being in conformity with international law.” Little wonder that NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is marked by tension and friction.
While the principle of proportionality is an important one in counterinsurgency, the German position epitomised by this incident is clearly pushing the principle to the point of absurdity. However, irrespective of how ridiculous this individual incident is, it is the underlying issue of national caveats that is ultimately at fault, and here the Germans are by no means solely to blame.
Speaking in March, ISAF commander Gen Dan McNeill said that he “would like the caveats to be eliminated”, claiming they were “frustrating in how they impinge upon my ability to properly plan, resource and prosecute effective military operations”. Unfortunately, there does not currently seem any realistic prospect that such wishes are likely to be fulfilled.
Read the full Der Spiegel article here.