Photo Scandal Raises Doubts in Germany About Deployments

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 28, 2006

BERLIN, Oct. 27 -- A scandal over soldiers caught playing with human skulls has rattled the German military and prompted a reexamination of the country's growing role in global peacekeeping missions.

German military officials said Friday that they had suspended two soldiers and were investigating several others suspected of desecrating skulls while serving in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led force in 2003 and 2004. Photos of troops mocking the freshly unearthed skulls -- including one of a uniformed soldier standing next to a human head with his genitals exposed -- have shocked many Germans since they were first published Wednesday in the tabloid newspaper Bild.

The controversy, one of several to surface recently from overseas military missions, has led officials here to question whether Germany has fully digested the political and security risks involved in such assignments. Currently, more than 9,000 German troops are posted in six hot spots around the world, a sharp reversal of the country's decades-long policy of staying out of war zones.

"The German politicians tried to sell this international cooperation and posting of German troops abroad as something good that we were doing for people, that we were bringing help to the starving masses," said Christoph Grams, a military and security analyst for the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "This shows that what we're doing is perhaps not completely clean. Now, people are paying more attention to the dangers of what we're doing."

Sensitive to its past under Nazi rule, Germany largely avoided international peacekeeping operations until 1999, when it sent troops to the Balkans to help quell the war in Kosovo. Since then, it has gradually expanded its participation in such missions and now also has forces in Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan and Djibouti.

This month, the German navy joined the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, but only after lawmakers held a long debate over whether the German military should be involved in the same theater of operations as Israeli forces, because of lingering sensitivities from the Holocaust.

The potential for conflict became reality on Tuesday, when six Israeli fighter jets fired warning shots over a German intelligence-gathering vessel off the coast of Lebanon, according to German military officials. Israeli officials denied opening fire but confirmed that Israeli jets approached a helicopter that had taken off from the ship -- carrying a German admiral -- because it was not authorized to fly in the area.

Both governments have played down the seriousness of the incident, but it has underlined the challenges facing the German military as it tries to avoid bloodshed even as it becomes engaged in more overseas missions.

The risks facing the 2,750 German troops in Afghanistan have grown in recent months along with the resurgence in attacks by Taliban forces. Although the Germans are assigned primarily to noncombat duties in northern Afghanistan, their actions have attracted more scrutiny of late.

This month, a Turkish citizen born and raised in Germany who was recently released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said he was physically abused by a German special forces unit in Afghanistan after he was captured there in 2002. The German Defense Ministry acknowledged that the prisoner, Murat Kurnaz, had been interrogated by German soldiers and said it would open an inquiry into whether he was mistreated.

Since then, the photos of the skulls have caused an even bigger stir. After an initial batch of pictures was published Wednesday, more have surfaced daily, including one showing a soldier smiling like a pirate at a skull perched on his shoulder.

It was unclear where, exactly, the skulls came from or how old they were. But the images of German soldiers playing with human remains has led to public revulsion and inevitable comparisons to the horrors perpetrated under Nazi rule.

So far, however, there have been few calls for Germany to curtail its participation in Afghanistan or in other missions. And on Wednesday, the German federal cabinet adopted a long-term national security policy that calls for an increased role in such missions in the future.

"It's very healthy for Germany to have an internal discussion about this," said Grams, the military analyst. "If Germany still says yes at the end of the day, it could make German participation even firmer in the future."

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