STUTTGART, Germany—President Donald Trump’s decision last month to cut the U.S. deployment in Germany by nearly 12,000 troops angered many Germans, who viewed it as petty score-settling by Washington that could harm local businesses operating near U.S. bases.
But a few Germans will be happy to see the Americans leave.
In left-wing circles, some political figures and activists say the U.S. bases on German soil, including U.S. Africa Command—known by its acronym Africom—in Stuttgart, have made Germany complicit in the U.S. drone wars in Africa and elsewhere that have killed not just militants but many civilians.
“It’s good that Africom is leaving,” said one of those politicians, Tobias Pflüger, a parliament member from the left-wing Die Linke party.
“Germany should not be involved with such crimes. Considering what is happening in Somalia, it’s more than cynical how some are worried about the withdrawal’s economic impacts,” he told Foreign Policy.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced in late July that the United States would relocate some units to Belgium and Italy, reducing the American troop presence in Germany from 36,000 to 24,000. The redeployment is expected to take months to implement, with 6,400 troops returning to the United States and the rest remaining in Europe.
Though Esper described it as part of a broader rethinking of U.S. deployments, Trump made clear it was driven by his own long-standing grievances, including that Germany isn’t spending enough on its own defense. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore,” he said at a White House briefing.
The United States has maintained troops in Germany since in the end of World War II, in part to protect Europe from then-Soviet—and now Russian—aggression.
Criticism of U.S. airstrikes coordinated from German soil is not new here. In 2013, investigative journalists from the Süddeutsche Zeitung and NDR reported in detail on Africom airstrikes that killed Somali civilians. The reports said every U.S. drone operation in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa is planned inside Kelley Barracks, home to Africom’s headquarters. The journalists also pointed out that while other European countries refused to host Africom, Germany welcomed the deployment in 2007.
“I think it’s good that they are leaving now. They are involved in a very dirty war that targets and extralegally executes civilians since the so-called war on terror started,” said Sulaiman Khan, a human rights activist from Stuttgart.
He said Somalis fleeing the war sometimes end up as refugees in Stuttgart.
Attacks on Somalia have risen sharply during Trump’s term. In the first seven months of 2020, the United States conducted at least 43 airstrikes in Somalia, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s own numbers. That’s one more than all the airstrikes the United States conducted against Somalia from 2007 to 2017—the decade after Africom’s establishment.
The target of those airstrikes is usually al-Shabab, a militant Somali group with ties to al Qaeda. But many civilians have been killed as well. At the end of July, a drone strike reportedly killed at least three Somali children in the city of Jilib. While local journalists reported details about the victims, Africom dismissed them as “terrorists.”
An Africom spokesperson did not respond to multiple queries for this story.
According to Amnesty International, at least 32 civilians were killed or injured by drone strikes in Somalia during the last three years. To this day, not a single victim has been compensated by the U.S. military. In the past 13 years, the number might be as high as 145 civilians, according to data collected by Airwars. Many drone strikes take place in remote areas where access to the outside world is limited. As a result, the real numbers could be even higher.
For Germans who benefit from their proximity to U.S. bases, the humanitarian issue is often trumped by economic concerns. “The troops are my best customers,” said Shawkat Hussain, who runs a Syrian-Pakistani restaurant close to a U.S. military base in Stuttgart. “I am not a fan of American foreign policy but the departure is not good for my business.”
Many local politicians are unhappy as well. “It’s a decision against Germany,” said Markus Söder, the president of the federal state of Bavaria.
“With this decision, the Trump administration dissolves a decade-long cooperation … by conducting a punitive action against an ally and without consent of Congress,” Fritz Kuhn, the mayor of the city of Stuttgart, said in a statement.
But Pflüger, the left-wing parliament member, said he was looking forward to more redeployments. “We don’t need a relocation of the headquarters but a total dissolution, and it must include Ramstein Air Base, too,” he said.
Ramstein is the Pentagon’s largest air base outside of the United States. Whistleblowers cited in the Drone Papers in 2015 described it as the heart of U.S. drone warfare. Without the relay station there, drone operators inside the United States would be unable to communicate with the unmanned vehicles in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.
“It’s vital to understand that civilians have no access to justice over U.S. lethal force,” Khalil Dewan, an investigator with the London-based law firm Stoke White, told Foreign Policy. Dewan focuses on drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen at the firm.
“Families of the dead are yet to receive compensation, let alone an explanation or apology,” he said.