Hate and Violence Mood in Northern Afghanistan Shifts against German Troops
The situation is in northern Afghanistan is deteriorating. Bomb attacks against German soldiers are increasing in frequency and force, and local ambivalence has turned into hate. The risk for Bundeswehr troops deployed in the country has increased as has the number killed.
They were carrying one of their great generals to his grave, thousands of mourners marching through the streets of the small city, chanting words of hate and trembling with rage. Gen. Mohammed Daud Daud -- the police chief for northern Afghanistan, a hero in Takhar province and an ally of NATO forces -- had died a day earlier in one of the worst Taliban attacks in a decade. The attack also killed two German soldiers and wounded German Gen. Markus Kneip, the commander of coalition troops serving as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in northern Afghanistan.
But when the crowd surged through the streets of the provincial capital Taloqan, it wasn't calling for revenge against the attackers but, rather, against those who are supposedly to blame for everything: Americans, Germans and any other foreigners. At the head of the march was a car equipped with loudspeakers. Inside, a young cleric chanted "Khariji," an umbrella term for evil directed toward the foreigners. It didn't seem to matter that the Taliban promptly and proudly claimed responsibility for the attack, or that German soldiers were among its victims.
When the mourners gathered around a walled-in area to recite the prayer for the dead, even the dignitaries who had come to the town for the funeral -- including former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and current Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi -- repeated the mantra that "Afghanistan's foreign enemies" were actually behind the attack.
And then the rumor mill started churning. One of those making the rounds in the town was that the German general's female interpreter had supposedly blown herself up. In interviews, Daud's brother claimed that the general had survived the explosion but was then shot down by foreign soldiers. Even the interim hospital director, Said Amin, who had spoken with the wounded, refused to believe that the Taliban was involved. "They can't even do something like this on their own," he said. "They must've had foreign help."
The rumors were grotesque, one more implausible than the next. But the locals still believed them.
A New Environment of Mistrust
The German military, the Bundeswehr, now has two noxious enemies in Afghanistan: the rumor mill and the Taliban's improved explosives. Last Thursday, a massive bomb exploded beneath a German "Marder" infantry fighting vehicle, killing one and wounding five soldiers. The incident brought the total number of German soldiers killed thus far in Afghanistan to 52. Four have died in the last two weeks alone.
Until now, the heavily armored Marders were considered relatively safe. But the insurgents are apparently now capable of building larger bombs, and the attack last Thursday shattered the myth of the vehicle's safety, signaling a new stage in the war.
At the same time, NATO forces are growing increasingly mistrustful of the Afghan security forces. The Germans have been "partnering" with the Afghans, training them and fighting alongside them. But, on Feb. 18, an Afghan soldier shot three Bundeswehr soldiers near Baghlan. As a result, German soldiers are starting to question whether they are dealing with partners of questionable loyalty.
'An Eye for an Eye'
The attack on the Marder triggered the usual debate in Germany. Hellmut Königshaus, the commissioner for the armed forces in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, once again called for improvements in equipment, including an armored vehicle with a robotic arm capable of removing explosive devices. Green Party national co-chair Claudia Roth demanded a fresh debate over the German strategy.
Indeed, Germany is once again at odds over the war in Afghanistan. This ironically comes at a time when the northern part of the country was supposed to be getting safer. Since 2009, American special forces have conducted nighttime "capture or kill" operations, often several times a week, though prisoners are rarely taken. Last year, they killed at least two dozen Taliban commanders in Kunduz. By last fall, half of the Taliban's leaders were dead, and most of the remaining ones had reportedly fled to Pakistan. Some even defected to the government's side.
Likewise, coalition and Afghan troops were gradually recapturing large swaths of Taliban-held territory. They were operating in tandem with -- and rearming -- the same local militias they had tried to disarm before 2006. In early January 2011, Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, Gen. Kneip's predecessor as the German regional commander in the north, sounded self-assured and confident of victory in a video press conference with Pentagon correspondents. "They are leaving the area," he said, in reference to the Taliban. "If they don't leave, they are killed." But Gen. Kneip, who barely escaped with his life, has now been forced to realize that this strategy can cut both ways.
In fact, instead of giving up, the Taliban simply adjusted their strategy to match that of the Americans: killing enemy leaders. On Oct. 8, 2010, the governor of Kunduz province died when insurgents detonated a bomb in a mosque during Friday prayers. On March 10, 2011, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili, the provincial police chief of Kunduz. On April 15, Khan Mohammad Mujahid, the police chief in Kandahar province, died in a suicide bombing at his headquarters. And now Gen. Daud and Gen. Shah Jahan Noori, the Takhar police chief, were killed in the May 28 attack.
Indeed, a German officer describes the Taliban's new strategy as "an eye for an eye." "For each Taliban leader we kill," he says, "we can now expect an attack on a top official in the Afghan government."
The only thing that can explain the large number of deadly attacks is that the Taliban have widely infiltrated the Afghan security forces. NDS, the Afghan intelligence service, estimates there are between 130 and 150 so-called sleepers within the ranks of the Afghan National Army and the police force. They can be activated at any time for attacks against ISAF, it says, even inside camps. As an NDS representative recently told an international group of military officials, up to 7 percent of all Afghan soldiers and police officers sympathize with the Taliban, creating a reservoir of spies and assassins. And these are the troops that are supposed to guarantee security in the country beginning in 2014.