Europe pays price for home guards

Do­mes­tic anti-ter­ror du­ties may com­pro­mise over­seas mis­sions

Cape Argus - - WORLD -

THE USE of armed sol­diers to pa­trol along­side pave­ment cafés and selfie-snap­ping tourists in Euro­pean cities since ji­hadi at­tacks risks com­pro­mis­ing de­ploy­ments over­seas, mil­i­tary lead­ers say. Bel­gium and France, both ac­tive in EU and Nato mis­sions, have cut back train­ing to free up troops and Nato plan­ners fear in time armies may get bet­ter at guard­ing rail­way sta­tions and air­ports than fight­ing wars.

Some of the more than 15 000 sol­diers serv­ing at home in Europe say tramp­ing the streets is a far cry from the for­eign ad­ven­tures they signed up for and they feel pow­er­less to de­fend against mil­i­tants.

“We are stand­ing around like flow­ers pots, just wait­ing to be smashed,” said an of­fi­cer just re­turned from Afghanistan for guard duty in Bel­gium, which, like France, has more troops de­ployed at home than in any sin­gle mis­sion abroad.

Se­cu­rity per­son­nel have been tar­geted in both coun­tries, but pa­trols be­gun as a tem­po­rary mea­sure af­ter Is­lamic State (IS) at­tacks in 2015 have be­come per­ma­nent fix­tures, as opin­ion polls show peo­ple are re­as­sured by sol­diers on show at home.

Italy has had sol­diers on the streets since 2008, Bri­tain used them briefly this year and, along with Spain, is pre­pared for de­ploy­ments if threat lev­els rise. De­spite their painful his­tory, Ger­many and Aus­tria have de­bated hav­ing mil­i­tary pa­trols at home for the first time since World War II.

Across Europe, po­lit­i­cal de­bate is shift­ing from whether, to how to adapt the armed forces to a home­land role, a con­cern for mil­i­tary lead­ers eye­ing bud­gets, morale and train­ing.

France’s for­mer mil­i­tary chief, who quit in July, said it had over­stretched the army, while the head of Bel­gium’s land forces said do­mes­tic de­ploy­ment was tak­ing its toll. “I see a lot of peo­ple who leave our de­fence forces be­cause of the op­er­a­tion,” said Gen­eral Marc Thys, the com­man­der of Bel­gium’s land forces.

Not ev­ery­one agrees. A de­fence min­istry source in Italy said its do­mes­tic pa­trols had “ab­so­lutely no im­pact on over­seas mis­sions or on train­ing”.

But some in Nato worry pro­tracted do­mes­tic op­er­a­tions will make key mem­bers of the 29-strong transatlantic al­liance less ready to de­ploy to Afghanistan or east­ern Euro­pean bor­ders with Rus­sia.

“It is pop­u­lar with the pub­lic, it is cheaper than the po­lice,” a se­nior Nato source said.

“But if the re­quire­ment came to send a lot of forces to re­in­force our east­ern al­lies… would the gov­ern­ment be will­ing to pull its sol­diers off the street to do that? And could it?”

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

GROW­ING SOFT? A Bel­gian sol­dier stands watch dur­ing a pa­trol out­side the Palace of Jus­tice in Brus­sels, Bel­gium.

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