On Aug. 31, the German government announced its decision to provide military aid to the Kurdish Peshmerga battling Islamic State militants in Iraq.
It’s a first in German history—and one with serious political implications.
There was no public debate or any previous announcement hinting at the coming arms deal. But the German military follows government policy, so it got to work making the transfer happen.
A small team of infantry instructors traveled to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to familiarize the Peshmerga with the small arms. The Pesh surely know how to operate the usual arms like the G3, AK-47 or PKM. But the German MG3, G36 and P1—fine pieces of German weapons engineering—are unfamiliar.
The arms transfer includes 8,000 G36s and 40 MG3s, but the most important element—what the Pesh lack and need most badly—are antitank weapons. Berlin’s package includes 30 Milan anti-tank missile launchers with 500 rockets, plus 200 Panzerfaust 3 adapters with 2,500 projectiles.
The Milan weapon system has proven effective in many conflicts, but it requires some training to fire accurately. The Panzerfaust 3—Pzf 3 for short—is a simple anti-tank missile system and pretty much self-explanatory, thanks to instructional pictograms.
Clip the adapter on the rocket tube, unfold the adapter, aim, fire, unclip adapter, repeat.
For the sake of proper training on those weapon systems, the Bundeswehr brought 40 Peshmerga to German facilities, including the infantry school in Hammelburg.
To the German military, handing over thousands of weapons is no big deal—they’re all surplus to domestic requirements. Ultimately, the political implications are more important.
After World War II, Germany adopted a policy banning the sale of weapons and military equipment to active conflict countries. As righteous as this might sound, the policy still allows arms sales to neighboring states, which can then pass the weapons along to whomever they like.
But now the government in Berlin feels it needs to directly support friendly forces in a dire situation … and is creatively interpreting old policy in order to justify the effort.
Officially, the weapons are country support, which Berlin normally grants to young states in order to help build up military and domestic forces. Therefore, Berlin gave the weapons to the Kurds for free along with civil and medical equipment. The package isn’t a sale, so it avoids the ban.
You can argue all you want about the status of the Kurdish “state.” But those weapons speak a rather clear language themselves. Domestically, this policy breach sparked a controversial discussion about the arms trade in general—and whether the government has the right to act like this.
Country support doesn’t need parliamentary approval like commercial arms deals do—rather, it only needs the approval of the federal security council, which meets independently and in secrecy. So the government made the decision and informed the public about it afterwards.
When public pressure increased, the government referred the issue to a federal constitutional court, which ruled in favor of the parliament’s right to be informed of such deals—but nothing more.
For the first time in its history, Germany has broken its own arms proliferation policy by sending weapons to a war zone. It’s a “good” deed originating in secrecy without public consent … and executed with typical German military precision.
Updated on Nov. 26 to clarify the policy details and court’s involvement.