Germans and Counterinsurgency

I’d been wondering all week what I should ask the German foreign policy and defense officials I was scheduled to talk to today, so at the suggestion of Spencer Ackerman I asked what they thought about General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency concepts and the general doctrinal shift toward COIN in the United States.

Bundeswehr photo by Martin Stollberg

Bundeswehr photo by Martin Stollberg

Unfortunately, nobody in the German government seems to have any interest whatsoever in talking to a room full of American journalists on anything other than off-the-record terms. Nevertheless, a few points emerged:

One is that there’s disagreement about terminology. It was explained to me that one challenge NATO has is that sometimes different national militaries will agree on an idea but have different names for it, or else will be agreeing on some words but actually mean quite different things. German public opinion is very pacifistic and the German military doesn’t like the term “counterinsurgency” which I think it regards as too alarming. They prefer to say that you need a comprehensive approach, rather than just killing the bad guys.

They also seem to sort of resent the idea circulating in the American press and apparently to some extent in the U.S. government that (to exaggerate a bit for effect) COIN doctine was something invented in the U.S. military in 2004-2005 then perfected in 2007-2008 and now General Petraeus has come down from the mountaintop to enlighten the allies. As the Germans see it, these had been familiar ideas in Europe for a while.

There’s also some really evident bitterness about the way the US government handled the Kunduz aistrike situation. I deliberately tried to not ask about this since I figured I’d just get a defensive response, but Germans wanted to drag the conversation about COIN doctrine back to this point. Few people really dispute the basic point about the need to avoid civilian casualties, but I think there’s a feeling that the Bundeswehr was being made into an example by American commanders and publicly humiliated in a way that would never have been done to an American military unit operating in a hostile situation.