Beer, Brats and Bad Behavior: German Elite Troops in Afghanistan Marred by Reports of Misconduct

As members of the German Bundestag prepare to decide whether to extend the German military's mission in Afghanistan, reports of alcoholism and irresponsible behavior by commanders of Germany's "Kommando Spezialkräfte" elite unit are coming to light.

The KSK in training: The behavior of this elite unit in Afghanistan has been far from exemplary.
DPA

The KSK in training: The behavior of this elite unit in Afghanistan has been far from exemplary.

They're athletic, in top physical condition and usually between 28 and 35 years old. While on a mission they often paint their faces black or disguise themselves with sunglasses and balaclavas. The soldiers call themselves "snipers." When they use their laser sights to take aim at the enemy with G-36 assault rifles, they call it "direct action."

Their tough selection process lasts more than three months, an endless series of physical and psychological tests described by one commander as the most strenuous "you can ask of people in a democracy."

The Bundeswehr, or German military, Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK) is the country's most secretive military operations unit -- Germany's special forces. Intense self-discipline and team spirit are expected. Their home base is in Calw, a peaceful town in the Black Forest. Their barracks lie behind a well-secured double- fence topped with barbed wire. The KSK is the vanguard of the German military, which has been deployed on an increasing number of missions throughout the world in recent years. The military itself refers to the KSK as "the elite unit."

Members of the KSK have been deployed in Afghanistan repeatedly since December 2001, but their behavior there has not always been what one would expect of an elite unit.

Drunken superiors, life-threatening vehicle training on mined territory and a vigorous trading of beer for United States military intelligence -- these are part of a long list of accusations contained in eyewitness accounts and documents that have just surfaced. One colonel in Kandahar is said to have been so fond of alcohol that American officers were forced to complain about his presence at mission briefings, during which he was clearly intoxicated.

Veil of Secrecy

The politically backed veil of secrecy that has long covered the KSK has begun to be lifted somewhat since the end of last year. Several KSK soldiers are suspected of having abused Bremen-born Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz in Kandahar before he was sent to Guantanomo Bay. He has since been released, but as of January a parliamentary commission has been investigating whether these allegations are true -- and what else the KSK has been doing in Afghanistan.

The German Defense Ministry is not making the investigation any easier. It was forced to admit that a large number of files on KSK missions during the period in question have been "accidentally" destroyed, and it has been very slow to hand over the remaining files. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) only informs the chairmen of the Committees for Defense and Foreign Policy about KSK missions -- and what he tells them is, of course, classified. The vast majority of parliament is left out of the loop.

Graphic: German Troops in Afghanistan
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: German Troops in Afghanistan

The Defense Ministry was similarly secretive last week. Questions about the current allegations posed by SPIEGEL remained unanswered. Some of the questions touch on "a thematic complex that continues to be the object of a parliamentary commission of inquiry," explained Jung's press spokesman, Thomas Raabe. Respect for parliament requires "only speaking before the appropriate parliamentary committees," he added.

That makes the new eyewitness accounts from sources close to the KSK and from US soldiers who spoke to SPIEGEL about the deployment of the KSK's 1st Contingent all the more illuminating. Security policy expert Winfried Nachtwei of the Green Party already said last spring that "current information indicates grave shortcomings in the planning and execution of the entire mission." Rainer Arnold, a military expert with Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), also believes that "reports that something was out of kilter on this mission were not looked into seriously enough" by the leadership at various levels.

Several KSK soldiers serving with the contingent spoke to SPIEGEL about their mission. A number of them quit the military because of their experiences with it in Afghanistan, where the Bundeswehr engaged in its first true ground deployment since the end of World War II. In at least one instance, a KSK soldier later contacted the Bundeswehr Operations Command back in Potsdam near Berlin and recommended informing the Defense Minister about "problem cases" in the unit. But this warning apparently never reached then Defense Minister, Peter Struck.

The information coming to light in a bug-proof conference room in Berlin's Reichstag building, where parliament meets, raises a series of questions: Were the goings-on in the KSK contingent just an ugly one-off? Is the Defense Ministry's sometimes bizarre secretiveness vis-à-vis parliament really only designed to ensure the safety of KSK soldiers, or is it also a way of covering up embarrassing behavior? And why are the members of parliament not allowed to learn exactly what went wrong even years after the end of an operation?

After all, the German parliament or Bundestag will soon vote on whether not Germany will extend its missions with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan.

Unlimited Solidarity?

The KSK's first deployment in Afghanistan began during the closing days of 2001. The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoking when US President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the "war on terror" -- and urged all US allies to participate. Then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised "unlimited solidarity" and the Bundestag voted in favor -- by a small majority -- of sending German troops to participate in the OEF anti-terror mission just 10 weeks after the terrorist attacks. It was the first time German ground troops had been deployed since 1945.

For most KSK soldiers, the Afghanistan mission began in a camp next to the US military base on Masira, a small island off the coast of Oman. From mid-December to early January 2002, group after group of German soldiers in desert fatigues climbed aboard US transporter planes and took off for Afghanistan.

The planes carrying the German elite forces landed on a dusty runway in Afghanistan's hard-fought southwest. It was bitterly cold that winter -- in December alone 177 local residents froze to death. The KSK soldiers saw rotting Soviet weapons, car and airplane wrecks and all sorts of garbage on the fields along the runway. They had arrived at Forward Operating Base (FOB) -- their first base during the war on terror, right by the airport in Kandahar, or "Q-Town," as the soldiers had named it.

Even experienced KSK soldiers were pushed to their limits by what awaited them there. The camp the US military had allotted the small KSK advance guard was about half the size of a soccer field. Aided by 150 Afghans, the KSK soldiers set up their "military camp" under the open sky. It mainly consisted of two-man tents. Even those soldiers who found shelter indoors were not much better off. The rooms were damp and there was no reliable electricity supply or heat.

It was a "life on the garbage dump," one member of the KSK 1st Contingent noted in his mission diary in early January 2002: "The mood in the camp is very tense."

The poor accommodations and provisions quickly took their toll. Many KSK soldiers fell ill. "Two mission soldiers collapsed today during roll call," one soldier wrote. Other sources spoke of "vitamin deficiency with scurvy-like symptoms."

During this initial period the KSK troops were fighting less against terror and more for their own survival. Moreover, they lacked their own helicopters and airplanes, or even vehicles suitable for the desert. The Germans didn't exactly get the impression that the US troops in Kandahar had been waiting desperately for them to arrive.

The US troops, who were charged with giving the KSK soldiers their assignments, were guarding a strongly secured prison camp on the FOB and initially kept their distance from the Germans. The KSK troops "often had to beg to be given assignments," and even then were given only "low-level targets," one KSK soldier recalls. The German troops were really "just a burden" on the US forces, he adds.

Ed H., a US soldier stationed in Kandahar from December 2001 onward, confirms this impression. "Basically, the Germans were not allowed to do anything," he recalls. "They looked around for things to do. They were incredibly bored." He remembers one frustrated German soldier killing time by explaining to him all the finer details of the German pension system.

But then the Germans' reputation abruptly changed. A rumor spread among US troops that at least one thing was worthwhile in the German unit -- its supply of alcohol.

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