By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 15, 2008
BERLIN, Nov. 14 -- Germany has been reluctant to send its soldiers to Afghanistan. Not so its beer.
Last year, the German armed forces shipped more than 260,000 gallons of home-brewed suds to its troops serving in northern Afghanistan, as well as more than 18,000 gallons of wine. On a per-soldier basis, that was the equivalent of a ration of 26 ounces of beer a day, all year long.
The revelation, made Wednesday in a report to Parliament, caused a stir in the German press, already deeply skeptical of the country's commitment to the war in Afghanistan. About 3,500 troops are based there, but surveys show that a majority of the population is strongly opposed to the mission.
"Boozers in the Bundeswehr?" asked a headline in the Stuttgarter Nachrichten, using the German term for the federal armed forces. "High Proof Assignment," chortled Die Welt, a national paper.
"Back home there will be a new debate," commented the Ostsee Zeitung. "The question, 'Are we at war in Afghanistan?' will be replaced by, 'Do I get too much alcohol as a soldier?' "
Government officials tried to put the issue in perspective. Defense Ministry spokesman Thomas Raabe said German soldiers were limited to two cans of beer a day and were not supposed to drink while on duty.
Raabe also said the alcohol was available for purchase by soldiers, diplomats and police officers from other NATO countries operating in Afghanistan, though he didn't specify how often they dipped into the German supply chain.
Jens Ploetner, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said delegations of German officials visiting Afghanistan were also known to imbibe. "With traveling journalists, I have observed the same," he said, pointing the finger back at reporters.
Not everyone was convinced. "Alcohol obviously plays an alarming role in the Bundeswehr camps," Elke Hoff, a defense expert and legislator from the opposition Free Democratic Party, told Bild, a tabloid paper. "Does alcohol fill the void left by a lack of recreational activities? What are the officers doing?"
Alcohol is forbidden in Afghanistan for Muslims, but foreigners are allowed to buy it under certain conditions. The U.S. military prohibits its troops there from drinking.
Reinhold Robbe, a German legislator who serves as the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, said it was "careless" to assume that German soldiers are lushes based solely on the amount of alcohol shipped to Afghanistan.
But he did express concern that perhaps the troops were doing too much sitting around. The Defense Ministry, he suggested, ought to offer its troops "an alternative to beer drinking, such as sports and cultural activities."
Worries about the fitness of German troops are not new. In March, an armed forces report found that more than 40 percent of soldiers ages 18 to 29 were overweight -- compared with 35 percent of German civilians of the same age.
About 70 percent of the soldiers were heavy smokers. Nearly one in 10 was described as clinically obese.
The March report concluded that the rank and file quaffed too much beer and ate too many sausages, while avoiding fruit and vegetables. It also blamed a stifling military bureaucracy for contributing to soldiers' "passive lifestyle."
"The disclosures are alarming," Robbe said at the time. "Plainly put, the soldiers are too fat, exercise too little and take little care of their diet."
Germany joined the NATO mission in Afghanistan in 2001, and its soldiers represent the third-biggest foreign contingent in the country, after those of Britain and the United States. But German troops don't do much fighting. Nearly all of them are prohibited from combat duty, by order of the German Parliament. They are also restricted to bases in northern Afghanistan, where conditions are relatively peaceful.
The United States and other NATO members have pressured Germany for years to loosen the restrictions and take a more active role in fighting the Taliban. Despite heavy domestic opposition, lawmakers voted last month to increase the German deployment to 4,500. They kept the combat restrictions in place.
With national elections looming next year, German officials have told their NATO allies not to expect any more help. But diplomats are bracing for some arm-twisting from a politician with sky-high approval ratings in Germany: U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.
"Now Germany has the U.S. president it wanted," wrote Der Spiegel, a national news magazine. But it added that Berlin was "afraid that Obama will soon ask the question that virtually no one in Germany wants to hear: Could you send more troops to Afghanistan?"
In the meantime, the flow of German booze to Afghanistan shows no sign of slowing down.
During the first six months of 2008, the Bundeswehr shipped more than 135,000 gallons of beer to Afghanistan, a 3.5 percent increase over the same period the year before.