A Question of Morality Germany's Afghan Staff Fear Reprisals
The German military plans to withdraw from Afghanistan completely by the end of next year. As it pulls out, it leaves behind Afghan employees -- some 1,700 of them -- including interpreters, drivers and kitchen staff. The Taliban has threatened to kill the collaborators.
The Afghanistan of Abdul's dreams was a peaceful and stable country. It was a country whose citizens would not have to live in fear, and where parents could send their daughters to school. And it was a country with decent roads and hospitals. When Abdul* signed his employment contract with Germany, he believed that he would be helping to make this vision of Afghanistan a reality.
Now Abdul is sitting in a dusty café in Kabul, showing us photos of his time with the German military, the Bundeswehr. In one photo, the Afghan is posing with a hulking blonde German soldier who has placed his arm around him. Abdul drank his first beer in the Bundeswehr camp in Kunduz. "Bitte ein Bit," he says with a chuckle, quoting the advertising slogan of a well-known German brand of beer. He once bought a colorful layer cake for one of their birthdays. "They were my friends," says Abdul.
Now his German friends have gone home, and Abdul fears for his life. He is in the same position as many of the roughly 1,700 Afghan nationals who work or worked for Germany, either for the Bundeswehr or the country's interior ministry.
Islamists in the country see them as traitors for cooperating with foreigners. The Taliban has repeatedly declared that death awaits the "collaborators with the enemy." Many Afghan employees of NATO have already been murdered, while others could face grim prospects when their protectors leave.
The Western allies plan to withdraw their combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission officially comes to an end. Now that the gigantic military operation is winding down, local Afghan employees fear the revenge of their fellow Afghans more than ever. Germany benefited from its Afghan helpers for years, and now the Afghans are waiting for Germany to help them.
They were paid well for their work. Many translators received about 650 ($848) a month, or about 10 times the average Afghan income. They too could have recognized the risk they were taking. And they also have no compelling legal right to be rescued. In other words, what happens to them is mainly a question of morality.
"When the foreigners are gone, the Taliban will beat us to death like flies," says Abdul, 25. He stands out in the streets of Kabul, a clean-shaven young man surrounded by men in beards. He looks nervous as he walks past begging women hidden under their burqas, and men carrying Kalashnikovs. He is constantly looking around.
The first calls began about a year ago. When he answered his mobile phone, there would be silence at the other end of the line, and when he called the number back, the phone would already be switched off. The anonymous callers eventually began making threats. One of them said: "You help the infidels, you are a spy. You will die." Abdul threw away his SIM card. He went into hiding with relatives in Kabul a few months ago. He had to leave his wife and daughter behind in Kunduz.
Abdul worked for the Bundeswehr as an interpreter for more than two years. He was proud of his job at first, knowing that the foreigners had come to help the Afghans. He felt that he was part of the future of his wonderful country.
When Abdul went on patrols with the Germans, his legs would often tremble a little when he stepped out of the Dingo transport vehicles. He was part of the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) in Kunduz, a unit in which German advisors operate together with Afghan soldiers. OMLT soldiers were repeatedly ambushed by insurgents or hit with roadside bombs, and a few were killed. For weeks, Abdul camped with the Germans at outposts in Baghlan Province, a Taliban area. They slept on cots, surrounded by green ridges where they suspected the enemy was hiding.
"We were the ears and eyes of the Germans," he says. He remembers that they often went into villages together and spoke with the local elders. When one of the Germans said something unseemly, something that could antagonize people, he simply modified his translation a little.
He wore a uniform during these operations. "Now everyone there knows my face," he says.
'I Risked My Life for the Germans'
One of Abdul's duties was to gather information for the Bundeswehr, including information about friends and neighbors. He says that he once heard a soldier with the Afghan army stirring up anti-German sentiment among his fellow soldiers. Abdul initially reported the incident to the commander of the Afghans. But the officer wasn't interested, so he told his German supervisor instead. The Afghan soldier was questioned and transferred to a different location. He is now one of many whose revenge the interpreter fears.
"I risked my life for the Germans," he says.
He is disappointed that they don't want to help him. Other ISAF countries, like the United States, Canada and New Zealand, have set up generous programs for local personnel and their families. France decided to accept about 170 of its Afghan employees into the country.
But so far the German government has refused to implement a collective solution. An announcement from the Interior Ministry, which holds primary responsibility, states that Germany is "aware of its special responsibility for the local Afghan employees." But according to authorities in Berlin, emigration to Germany will only be considered if "there is evidence of a concrete danger to life and limb which differs significantly from the general threat potential in Afghanistan," which also can't be averted locally.
When Afghan employees have concerns, they take them to their duty station in Afghanistan. An "interagency task force" consisting of representatives from the Interior, Foreign and Defense Ministries, as well as the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, will then evaluate the information and review the "individual threat situation" on a case-by-case basis.
The German Defense Ministry has examined 11 cases to date, but in none of the cases did the examiners conclude that emigration was justified. The German ministries were unwilling to provide further details on their criteria.
"An extralegal, completely non-transparent procedure was established," says attorney Victor Pfaff, who represents a few Afghan employees for the special interest organization Pro Asyl. Pfaff argues that under Section 22 Subsection 11 of the German Residence Act, every foreigner has the right to apply for a German visa for "urgent humanitarian reasons," but that the Afghans are being denied this right. Instead, he says, the German government is forcing them into a special procedure, thereby practically denying them the possibility of taking legal action.
"The Moor has done his part, and now the Moor can go -- that's unacceptable," says Elke Hoff, defense policy spokeswoman for Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), who is addressing the issues surrounding the Afghan employees. "We need a contingent solution," says Green Party defense expert Omid Nouripour. "These people are under threat because they helped us," which results in a "moral obligation." Nouripour believes that the number of potential immigrants is manageable. After all, not every kitchen worker who helped the Germans will have to flee from the Taliban.
The German government offers two main arguments in defense of its high hurdles. First, says Berlin, it would be detrimental to the country's reconstruction if the Germans' employees, who are often well-trained, fled to Germany, which would also be contrary to the Afghan government's wishes. Second, the Germans point out that the security situation has improved.
- Part 1: Germany's Afghan Staff Fear Reprisals
- Part 2: 'He Has to Disappear'