Dying for Kabul Are the Germans Stationed in Afghanistan Cowards?
Southern Afghanistan is far from having been pacified -- a bloody war with the Taliban has erupted there. German troops have picked a relatively comfortable spot for themselves in the north of the country. Because they have avoided deadly fighting, they have been labeled "cowards" by the Americans and Brits. But are they?
David Byers peers forth cautiously at the world from behind his narrow, steel-rimmed glasses. He's combed his short brown hair so it fits neatly under his beret. His mouth is fixed in a serious expression, and Byers looks as if he has a lot of questions on his mind. His visage is part of a photo of his batallion, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.
Private Byers was 22 years old when he was first sent into the field -- in southern Afghanistan, more than 16,000 kilometers (9,942 miles) from his hometown of Espanola in southern Canada. His mission was to help bring democracy and political stability to the land of the Hindu Kush mountains -- a land where war has raged since before his birth.
Now he lies in a zinc coffin on the United States military base in Kandahar, draped with a Canadian flag.
Byers died on Sept. 18, while on patrol in the village of Kafir Band. A man approached the private and his group on a bicycle. When the man detonated a set of explosives strapped to his body, Byers and three other Canadians were killed and roughly a dozen soldiers seriously injured.
Now eight men are carrying Byers's coffin across the airfield on their shoulders. They're holding the zinc coffin with one hand and leaning on the soldier to their side with the other. The coffin carriers don't look like grown men -- more like big boys. The bare mountains of Kandahar rise against the horizon, and the dust of the desert lingers in the air.
The eight men place Byers's corpse inside the dark hold of the Hercules airplane that will take him back to Canada, back to Espanola. Three more coffins have been placed inside the plane. So far, 42 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, most of them during the past three months in the southern part of the country.
How many lives should peace in Afghanistan be allowed to cost? The total number of Western soldiers who have died there is 504, including 18 Germans. The last German to die was 44-year-old Armin Franz, a lieutenant colonel from the reserve army of Redwitz near Rodach. He was killed in a suicide attack on Nov. 14, 2005.
Master Sergeant Carsten Kühlmorgen was one of the first Germans to die in an attack in Afghanistan. He defended Germany with his life, by the Hindu Kush mountains, said Peter Struck, who was Germany's defense minister at the time. Kühlmorgen died on June 7, 2003 at 07:58 a.m., as he was traveling to the airport by bus from Camp Warehouse, the German headquarters in the Afghan capital.
Kühlmorgen was scheduled to fly home after six months of service -- back to the eastern German city of Chemnitz. A suicide bomber in a yellow Lada taxi rammed the bus on Jalalabad Road, transforming it into a fireball. Four people died and 29 suffered serious burns. One lost a leg, another his eyesight. Most of the survivors are deeply traumatized: They're suffering from so-called post-traumatic stress syndrome or the "war shakes," as it used to be called. It's a symptom of war that has ruined marriages and destroyed men's lives.
Was it necessary? For Germany? A group of relatives made its way to this foreign world in Kabul a few months later. They wanted to know what their brothers, sons and fathers had died or been permanently mutilated for. The German military psychotherapist Karl-Heinz Biesold spoke to them following their return. "What happened became more understandable," he says, "but in the end there's always something inexplicable that remains."
The relatives visited the camp were the soldiers had been stationed. They drove to the place where the bomb had exploded. Then they went to the Shar-i-Nau neighborhood in Kabul, and stood between geranium flowers and roses, on a Christian cemetery where the German embassy had organized a memorial service.
The notable guests included Amin Farhang, an Afghan who lived in German exile for many years and is now minister of trade and industry in the administration of President Hamid Karzai. He did his best to alleviate the sadness and perplexity of the relatives: "The Afghan people will never forget the names of the great men who sacrificed themselves and died heroically to preserve the security of Afghanistan."
Graphic: Death in the South
Back then, after the December 2001 conference in Petersberg near Bonn on the rebuilding of Afghanistan, the Germans were among the first to go to Kabul. They dared to expand their mission beyond the capital and into the north of Afghanistan before others did -- the German military took responsibility for nine provinces in northern Afghanistan this summer. The risk seemed manageable: Most of the inhabitants in those provinces are of Tajik and Uzbek ancestry, making them traditional opponents of the Pashtun Taliban.
In making this move, the Germans won the respect of other NATO countries. But then, three months later, the NATO alliance expanded its operations into the Afghan south, to the heartland of Afghan drug cultivation and the hinterland of the Taliban, where skirmishes take place everyday and where NATO soldiers die almost daily in what US President George W. Bush has christened the "War on Terror."
The heaviest losses have been suffered by the British and the Canadians: Each of the countries has lost more than 40 soldiers during military operations so far. Of the 18 Germans who have died in Afghanistan, 5 died in enemy attacks and one was killed by a mine -- the others died in accidents. On March 6, 2002, the two master sergeants Thomas Kochert and Mike Rubel were killed when they tried to defuse an anti-aircraft missile near Kabul. Seven other German soldiers were killed when a CH-53 military helicopter crashed on Dec. 21, 2002.
The division of labor between the various NATO countries is now the source of bad blood between the partners. Canadian Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor would like the German, French, Italian and Spanish troops currently stationed in the relatively safe western and northern Afghanistan to be involved in operations all over the country. He wants to create pressure at the NATO conference scheduled for late November in Riga, Latvia. Re-distributing NATO troops across Afghanistan will be the "number one" issue, he has announced.
The Germans at NATO headquarters in Kabul now face open hostility: They're mocked as cowards and cop-outs. Some Europeans "obviously resist the idea that you have an army in order to fight. And I have very little patience for that," says the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann. Neumann wants the Germans to join in the fighting -- and the dying, if necessary -- in southern Afghanistan.
Neumann sits on the roof terrace of his residence at the end of Great Massoud Road in Kabul. To his left lies the dusty and overpopulated inner city, where hotels and new homes are being built. To his right are the bare and inhospitable peaks of the Kuh-i-Baba mountains. The Virginian knows this part of the world: His father served as ambassador to Afghanistan between 1966 and 1973.
Before he came to Kabul, 61-year-old Neumann was in Baghdad, where it seems there's little left to save -- yet another reason why the mission in Afghanistan mustn't fail as well. The conflict has cost 350 US soldiers their lives so far. The ambassador speaks quietly, but more clearly than diplomats usually do: If Afghanistan falls back into the hands of the Taliban, he warns, there will be no peace for people in the West -- including Germans.
The US diplomat is by no means the only person to hold this opinion. Many experts expect terrorists to return to Afghanistan in the case of a renewed seizure of power by the Taliban, and they expect these terrorists to plan and carry out attacks in the US, Europe and Asia. The terrorists could largely finance their own activities by the drug trade. So why are the USA's allies so hesitant, when their security is at risk? Neumann can't help but wonder.
So are the Germans cowards -- or are they just smart?