Is Germany at war because of ISAF?

Our politicians (well, those in power) resist the notion that we're at war or that at least the Germans in Afghanistan are waging a war.

I'm quite sure that Afghanistan is a country at war; there's a civil war between the "national" and foreign forces on one side and a decentralized collection of Taliban groups plus some other armed fores (smuggler clans, for example) on the other side.

This doesn't mean that we or our soldiers there are at war - not in itself.
Combat itself is not necessarily war.

So let's have a closer look at it:

- - - - -

The German ministry of defence writes on its website:
Seit Dezember 2001 ist die Bundeswehr – gestützt auf ein breites Mandat des Bundestages – in Afghanistan präsent. Im Rahmen der International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) unterstützt sie die afghanische Regierung bei Herstellung und Wahrung der Inneren Sicherheit, solange einheimische Kräfte dazu noch nicht vollständig in der Lage sind. Außerdem wirkt sie beim Wiederaufbau des Landes mit.
Since December 2001 is the Bundeswehr - resting on a broad mandate of the Bundestag - in Afghanistan. It supports in the framework of the (...) ISAF the Afghan government in the establishment and maintenance of the internal security as long as indigenous forces aren't fully capable to do this. Furthermore, it helps in the reconstruction of the country.

-> Official national (BMVg/government) position:
ISAF supports the Afghan government as long as it cannot do its jobs on its own.

The ISAF website says
NATO’s main role in Afghanistan is to assist the Afghan Government in exercising and extending its authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance. It does this predominately through its UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force.

Since NATO took command of ISAF in 2003, the Alliance has gradually expanded the reach of its mission, originally limited to Kabul, to cover Afghanistan’s whole territory. The number of ISAF troops has grown accordingly from the initial 5,000 to around 50.000 troops coming from 42 countries, including all 26 NATO members.
In accordance with all the relevant Security Council Resolutions, ISAF’s main role is to assist the Afghan government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment. To this end, ISAF forces are conducting security and stability operations throughout the country together with the Afghan National Security Forces and are directly involved in the development of the Afghan National Army through mentoring, training and equipping.
ISAF is a coalition of the willing - not a UN force properly speaking - which has a peace-enforcement mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Nine UN Security Council Resolutions relate to ISAF, namely: 1386, 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1707, 1776 and 1833 (on 23 September 2008). A detailed Military Technical Agreement agreed between the ISAF Commander and the Afghan Transitional Authority in January 2002 provides additional guidance for ISAF operations.

NATO took command of ISAF in August 2003 upon request of the UN and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and soon after, the UN gave ISAF a mandate to expand outside of Kabul.
-> Official multinational (ISAF/NATO) position:
"ISAF’s main role is to assist the Afghan government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment. To this end, ISAF forces are conducting security and stability operations (...)"

Now let's look at the international stage (United Nations);
ISAF was authorized by the UNSC, after all.

It began with
S/RES/1386 (2001)
Authorizes, as envisaged in Annex 1 to the Bonn Agreement, the establishment for 6 months of an International Security Assistance Force to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment;
It got extended (duration) by S/RES/1510 (2003).

S/RES/1563 (2004) extended ISAF again and added
Calls upon the International Security Assistance Force to continue to work in close consultation with the Afghan Transitional Administration and its successors and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General as well as with the Operation Enduring Freedom Coalition in the implementation of the force mandate;
S/RES/1623 (2005) extended again...

S/RES/1659 (2006) was a bit more creative extension:
3. Affirms the central and impartial role of the United Nations in Afghanistan, including coordination of efforts in implementing the Compact; and looks forward to the early formation of the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, co-chaired by the Afghan Government and the United Nations, and with a secretariat function to support it;
4. Welcomes the interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy (iANDS) presented by the Afghan Government and the political, security and financial pledges made by participants at the London Conference; notes that financial assistance available for the implementation of iANDS has now reached $10.5 billion; further notes the intention of the Afghan Government to seek debt relief through the Paris Club;
5. Recognizes the risk that opium cultivation, production and trafficking poses to the security, development and governance of Afghanistan as well as to the region and internationally, welcomes the updated National Drug Control Strategy presented by the Afghan Government at the London Conference, and encourages additional international support for the four priorities identified in that Strategy including through contribution to the Counter Narcotics Trust Fund;
6. Acknowledges the continuing commitment of NATO to lead the
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and welcomes the adoption by NATO of a revised Operational Plan allowing the continued expansion of the ISAF across Afghanistan, closer operational synergy with the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and support, within means and capabilities, to Afghan security forces in the military aspects of their training and operational deployments;

S/RES/1707 (2006) extended.

S/RES/1776 (2007) had this as creative part:
Stresses the importance of increasing the effective functionality,
professionalism and accountability of the Afghan security sector in order to provide long-term solutions to security in Afghanistan, and encourages ISAF and other partners to sustain their efforts, as resources permit, to train, mentor and empower the Afghan national security forces, in particular the Afghan National Police
S/RES/1833 (2008) adds another extension to 13 October 2009 and has this
Stresses the importance of increasing, in a comprehensive framework, the functionality, professionalism and accountability of the Afghan security sector, encourages ISAF and other partners to sustain their efforts, as resources permit, to train, mentor and empower the Afghan national security forces, in order to accelerate progress towards the goal of self-sufficient and ethnically balanced Afghan security forces providing security and ensuring the rule of law throughout the country, welcomes in this context the progress achieved by the Afghan Authorities in assuming lead security responsibility for Kabul, and stresses the importance of supporting the planned expansion of the Afghan National Army;

-> Official international (U.N.) position:
ISAF is a mission to assist the Afghan government under NATO leadership in consultation with an UNSecGen representative and OEF.

- - - - -

These statements are lacking an important part or a war mission: They do not tell that ISAF's mission was to defeat an enemy or to at least force warring parties to end warfare. ISAF is by official design not meant to win or end the war, but to add security and stability to Afghanistan till the Afghan government takes over.
It was meant to be an Afghanization project from day one (unlike OEF-A).

The clausewitzian understanding that war is about breaking the will of an enemy (if necessary by disarmament or death) is completely missing in ISAF's mission.

The job of ISAF is - as I read it - not to defeat the Taliban or any other group, but to assist the government (forces) and to provide security. It's a kind of policing job.

ISAF is more about buying time than about defeating an enemy.

- - - - -

Well, is ISAF at war, is Germany at war?

It's certainly a strange situation - it would be a very unusual level of violence for a war with German participation, for sure.

My take is now that we're in fact not at war. The official documents about the ISAF mission, the political intent, the intensity of violence and the art of war tell me that we're not at war.

We're instead in what could be called a peacekeeping mission gone wrong. ISAF doesn't really succeed to keep war away - it merely succeeds in keeping the Taliban mostly in the underground and in suppressing large-scale violence. Yet, we don't pull out either.

I was changing between the "it's war" and the "it's no war" position for a long time, and now I think that -unless we see great changes- it's not a war. It's another kind of mess.

ISAF is a peacekeeping mission gone wrong.
I stick to my opinion that we should have no more than maybe a dozen soldiers (military observers) in Afghanistan. The investigation of the topic's question was nevertheless interesting. I also recovered a little bit of my respect for our SecDef. Just a bit.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Sven-

    Nice post. The Taliban is the defacto chief political representation for the Pastuns in Afghanistan, which constitute about half the population. The Taliban were the former government. The Afghan government consists of some former (and future) members of the Taliban. Also the government and various ISAF states have reportedly had intermittent discussions with Taliban representatives on political matters.

    So is the Taliban inside or outside the Afghan interim government? If they are inside, and I think a case could be made for that, then military operations against the Taliban would be against ISAF's mandate?

    Just as Korea and Vietnam took place within the context of the Cold War, the Afghan fandango takes place within the context of the legacy of George W. Bush . . .

    My suggestion for the Bundeswehr is to declare the mission accomplished, pack up and come home.

    Btw, Clausewitz does address something similiar to this situation . . . Book 6, Ch 8 of On War, refer to "Gewebe von falschen Gründen".

  2. I wasn't quite sure how to call it myself. I came to a different conclusion, however.

    It's not about the truth, it's not about Clausewitz or the amount of ammunition they use. The debate is about the unspoken conclusion each group draws from their standpoint. You cannot really simplify their arguments by saying that the one group wants to obfuscate the true nature of the conflict so as to keep the public bewildered and continue their clandestine agenda while the other side wants to shed light on the truth out of concern for our troops and democratic conviction. That becomes quite obvious when you listen to pragmatists like yourself who don't call it a war, or ideologists on the far left who have been calling it a war from the start.

    What matters is not the name you give it. That debate itself is completely misleading, it's a waste of time and energy. We should be discussing what to do, not what to call it. And the case for or against ISAF should be made with our national security interests in mind.

    It's quite clear that Afghanistan won't be a free democratic country in the foreseeable future, and no amount of resources we put into it will change that. So we are definitely not fighting for democracy or human rights over there. It all comes down to one question: can we make Germany and Europe safer by deploying troops there, and if so then how much effort is the right amount (definitely a minimal approach, like you suggested).

    Anything else, and I'm very sorry but I have to include your post here, is just political bickering that is completely detached from reality and, more importantly, doesn't help our troops one bit. On the contrary.

  3. Well, there's an insurgency going on in Afghanistan. In other words, it's a civil war between the "national" government, various warlords, organized crime, the heterogenous Taliban, AQ and all the other terrorist groups. But ISAF - unlike OEF Afghanistan - is supporting the "national" government on behalf of the United Nations. So yes are (should be) fighting a war, but we are not at war as defined by the Basic Law or International Law.

    Why we fight? Well, Germany wants a Security Council seat and we have our very own national security interests in the region, concerning the security of energy supllies, economic development and of course Pakistan.

    Is it worth fighting for? Perhaps, perhaps not. Only time will tell.

    How should we handle the first real warfighting mission of the Bundeswehr? Well, we should concentrate on the various hotspots in our area of operations and increase the number of our OMLTs and start fielding more ANA Battalions and some appropriate paramilitary police forces. Even with our tight budget and moronic force structure we could do more and better.

  4. The permanent UNSC seat idea was as far as I know given up long ago.

    I don't know any national interests except possibly prestige and philanthropic ideas in the area.
    It's economically irrelevant to us.

    We haven't been in the crosshairs of Taleban or AQ until we joined the 'GWOT'. I fail to see how a employment of the military in Afghanistan helps our national security.

  5. Hi Sven,

    let me start with a quote:

    "It's quite clear that Afghanistan won't be a free democratic country in the foreseeable future, and no amount of resources we put into it will change that. So we are definitely not fighting for democracy or human rights over there."

    In the above sentence 1 does not logically lead to sentence 2. The aim is rather achieving "more democracy and more human rights than at present" - plus trying to establish a (somewhat) stable country after decades of war.

    ISAF is not a NATO article 5 operation (correct me if I am wrong), but it is a NATO operation, and Germany is a NATO member with quite some significance. That means Germany can't just walk out of this by national decision, at least not without heavy damage to itself as to its stand inside the alliance.

    Moreover, quite many observers out there say that if NATO doesn't get AFG right, then it might as well dissolve itself.

    Reality check: Your proposal to leave only 12 advisors in AFG would als mean to cancel the AWACS missions, and to bring the AFG air transport services to a halt that quite some allies rely upon.

    So this boils down to the question of either a) what exactly keeps Germany in NATO, or b) how NATO can be made to leave AFG.

  6. Well, as far as I know Germany's dependence on Central Asia's oil and natural gas reserves is increasing and Germany is a major trading partner for several Central Asian states.
    A defeat, withdrawing ISAF before the Afghan Security Forces are able to provide security to the Afghan people will be seen as a defeat by the International Community and the enemy, would endanger Central Asia, there are already militant and islamic movements in these states. Central Asia based foreign fighters in Afghanistan would return home radicalised, experienced and probably armed.
    Same with Pakistan, just that the government could try to divert the country's internal tensions by heating up the conflict with India. The whole region is a powder keg.

    Well, Germany hasn't been in the crosshairs of the Afghan Taliban, because this movement has real no international agenda. AQ is something wohlly different, it's an international, aggressive and panislamistic organisation. AQ and other islamistic groups have been active in Germany for a long time, not just since 9/11 or our troop deployment to Afghanistan.
    Our fight with AQ or other groups in Afghanistan keeps them pretty busy over there, of course every now and then a terror cell will pop up in Germany. AQ will have to divert most of its funds and personnel to Afghanistan or wherever we fight them.

    Concerning the Security Council seat: as far as I know the countries involved were not able to agree on a common resolution. Still it's about being a reliable and responsible partner in international affairs and Germany was one of the countries, that started the Afghanistan mission. If we want to be seen as a reliable partner, we'll have to continue our deployment.

  7. @anonymous (is picking a nickname that hard?):
    The economic ties to the whole region are really marginal. We've got some trade with Iran, Pakistan and India, but Central Asia is entirely dispensable for our economy.

    AQ in Pakistan is no real threat to us. It's the dozens of cells in dozens of other countries who are the real operatives. The AQ people in Pakistan are merely the poster childs, loudmouths and ideologues.

    The South Koreans left ISAF, the Canadians and Dutch will soon leave.
    I suppose that any "damage" will be very short-lived.
    I actually assert that this "you can't" , "reliable" "willing" stuff is mere propaganda and illusion. No NATO partner could do anything about it if we left. We don't get anything for free due to our presence - most foreign political successes are trade-offs, and these trade-offs would still follow the same rules without German troops in AFG.

    Have a look at the Turks. They're a major NATO member as well, with a large army. They provide about 1,300 troops at Kabul IIRC. They're NATO's bridge to Muslims and could be extremely useful, but they do much, much less than Germany.
    Italy: Much less troops than Germany.
    Greece: A mere company.
    Spain: Only about 800.
    Did they experience any sanctions?

    NATO is widely perceived as a defensive alliance, and it does that job fine. No state is even planning on invading us.
    The expedition travel bureau job is not at NATO's heart, it's rather a distraction.

    Those "quite many observers" are duds. NATO serves a purpose, and even an end of an political adventure wouldn't change that.

  8. South Korea is not in NATO, and both Canada and NL have a rather big (=oversized compared to the country size) contribution going on in AFG, which can serve as a good reason to withdraw. Yet I believe their announced withdrawl is a political move to create pressure and enforce the writing of a true exit strategy, and in fact I very much doubt that these two countries will withdraw every single soldier.

    Inside-NATO-sanctions for Greece and Spain: That's an interesting question indeed, especially for what concerns Spain.

    The NATO strategy as set in 1999 was based on "Out of area, or out of business!", and this mantra is still valid. This stands in opposition to your quote: "The expedition travel bureau job is not at NATO's heart, it's rather a distraction." You are still thinking in NATO v1 terms (cold war setup), but we are now moving fast towards NATO v3.

    From your comments I take it that you'd rather want Germany to stay in NATO, and have NATO leave AFG instead. Yet I wonder how you would define Germany's reasons to remain a member, where exactly is the benefit - will mere "solidarity" be sufficient? Germany is surrounded by friends, and does not experience challenges like Italy or Spain in the Mediterranean (BTW those are more and more addressed by the EU and not NATO), nor is Germany under attack by AQ like the US, nor does it fear Georgia-like action by Russia like the Baltic states do.

    So only non-compelling reasons like "maintaining the trans-atlantic ties" and "preventing a Turkey-Greece clash" appear to speak in favour of NATO membership, whereas "living under a protective nuclear umbrella" is becoming less and less important - and desired. Care to disagree? :-)

    We have left the "war - no war" discussion and are a bit OT, on the other hand the answer to the intial topic doesn't really matter as you've pointed out before, it is rather a catalyst to more deeper, and hopefully more public, discussion.

  9. I consider your NATO v3 as a mere fashion (and one with poor taste).

    The justification for a Germany in NATO without German troops in ISAF would be simple: It provides more to the alliance than it receives.

    A departure of Germany from NATO would break NATO's logistical back in regard to the defence of its Eastern European members.

    Germany is surrounded by friends or neutrals (and that's in great part a well-deserved result of its policy) - but it's only 400 km away from Russia, and Poland is militarily weak (only about one heavy division equivalent and less soldiers per million inhabitants than Germany).
    Russia is still the least non-credible conventional threat to NATO, after all.

    I've got my own opinion about "nuclear umbrella"
    http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2009/05/foreign-comments-on-german-attitude.html (behind last pic)

    About the utility of NATO

    Besides; it's not like 'passive members do not deserve membership'. It's rather like 'warmongers violate the North Atlantic treaty'.

    Blogging for two years bears fruits. I can now discuss by throwing links. ;)

  10. @Sven

    Picking a nickname isn't hard, it's just that I am so damn lazy.

    However, I am concerned about a possible escalation of the Indo-Pakistani conflict. You are right about AQ in Pakistan, but I am talking about the Pakistani Taliban and their fighters in Afghanistan, who may return.

    The Dutch and the Canadians have seen some pretty tough fighting in the last years, but they will not fully withdraw, but rather scale down their commitment. Probably they will deploy OMLTs to train and mentor the ANA. And as far as I know, ROK troops are back in Afghanistan. Italy is providing close air support and aerial reconnaissance. In addition they'll soon deploy as many troops as Germany and remember they have a smaller budget and a smaller army. Greece still has a conscript army. Turkey has a conscript army, too. And they are more concerned with fighting the Kurds and not "pissing off" their Arab neighbors.

    Germany won't be thrown out of the Alliance if we withdraw, but our credibility and reputation will be damaged, and that will most certainly influence our future deployments alongside our allies.

  11. Germany has a conscript army as well (in theory). That's no explanation for Greece's low commitment.

    The point wasn't so much the low commitment of other NATO nations, but the fact hat they suffer no terrible consequences.
    There's actually no reason to believe that a nation would suffer terrible consequences by leaving the expedition - it's just a propaganda myth by pro-mission politicians in my opinion.

    About later deployments:
    I don't see how we could suffer then (besides that I don't want more deployments anyway).

  12. Well, we have an almost professional army, while most of the the Hellenic Armed Forces is made up of conscripts.

    I didn't say that Germany will suffer terrible consequences, but that we will no longer have that much influence on future deployments that will be more important to us, as they won't know if we back out again.

    (I know you're not the biggest fan of military intervention.)

  13. OK, what influence did we have on past deployments that served us well?
    It didn't look to me as if this or that (sometimes even temporary) 'lead nation' title was much more beneficial than a bit training for staffs.

    The most influence that we got was that our troops weren't always under foreign command, right?

    Actually, that's indeed far off-topic. I've got a draft on a more related topic in my blog folder.

  14. Well, Germany was one of the driving forces behind the breakup of Yugoslavia. And Bundeswehr officers were put in command of multinational brigade level and division level formations, even in 2003 a german general commanded ISAF. Also, Germany was able to shape Nato's and the EU's defence and security policy, e.g. fielding rapid reaction forces, because of their commitment. (Again, I know you're not a fan of military interventions, but this should simply serve as an example).

  15. And command of ISAF has benefited Germany how (beyond some staff experience)?

    The NATO "rapid reaction forces" are at what condition right now? Mostly non-existing and non-operational, right? This multinational NATO response force idea have likely hurt European defence more than it helped. Look at what this idea did to the British (FRES)!