Taliban Death Threats: The West's Afghan Workers Fear NATO Withdrawal
With the German army pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014, hundreds of Afghan workers fear they will become victims of revenge by the Taliban, who have already condemned them as traitors. German authorities are already preparing for a wave of visa applications.
A German soldier, accompanied by an Afghan translator in a German uniform, talks to an inhabitant of the village Arab Sher Ali in northern Afghanistan.
When Muhammad Shah* goes to the mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, he's always got the year 2014 in his prayers. "Every day I pray to Allah that international troops won't withdraw from my country in two years," says the 27-year-old Afghan. "Not only will I lose my job -- I will also have to fear for my life and those of my family."
It's late afternoon in northern Afghanistan and Shah is coming straight from his shift. Like hundreds of other Afghans, for six years the young man has worked as an interpreter for the Bundeswehr at Camp Marmal, the German army's largest base. He earns about $700 per month for his help in establishing contacts within the local population, or roughly twice as much as an Afghan general makes.
Every day Shah goes out on patrol with the troops. He likes the German army soldiers.
These days it's the evening news on television which scares Shah. By the end of 2014, at the latest, almost all international troops are to be withdrawn from the country in the Hindu Kush mountains, at least according to plans by nations present in the country going into the NATO summit in Chicago that begins on May 20. NATO leaders are hoping that the Afghan security forces can take over full responsibility for their country by then. The German government likes to call this plan the "responsible handover."
But if that happens, then Shah and his colleagues will have to fear for their lives. "The Taliban knows exactly who works for NATO," he says. "They already threaten us with letters and text messages." Without the protection of foreigners, Shah feels like a standing target. "The Taliban considers us traitors because we helped the foreigners," he says. "That is why they will hunt us down and kill us." He expects little help from local security forces. "They will run away from the Taliban," he predicts.
In Germany's Regional Command North alone, between 1,600 and 3,000 Afghans, called local personnel in bureaucratic speak, work as interpreters, drivers and laborers. Most are full-time employees for the Bundeswehr, the Foreign Ministry or other in other German agencies, working in positions in police-training programs or on development projects, for example.
The supposed dream jobs for every Afghan, with their fixed pay and other privileges, have turned out to be a deadly risk. For months the Taliban has hounded anyone who has helped international troops with propaganda and justified any attacks on them. "As soon as the foreigners are gone, the collaborators will pay a price for their treason," announced Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid.
Afghans aren't the only ones busy thinking about how to protect the helpers after Germany withdraws its troops. "We cannot let those who have supported us just stand out in the rain," a German general recently said. "The only question is, how can we help them?" He said it was clear that interpreters are especially at risk, because they are visible helpers to the Germans outside of the camps. Equipped with bulletproof vests and helmets they almost look like they are a part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Officials within the Bundeswehr and in German ministries fear a horror scenario after the troop draw down. Taliban commanders could hunt down the former employees of ISAF troops and then publicly arrest and execute them.
German ministries active in Afghanistan are intensely searching for a solution. Since the end of March, when officials from the defense, foreign, interior and economic cooperation and development ministries held an emergency meeting, the Interior Ministry has been working on an aid plan for Afghan employees of the Germans who could be threatened.
Some interpreters and workers would gladly get visas for themselves and their families and start a new life in Germany. The country is considered a dream destination in Afghanistan, judging by the rapid increase in the number of Afghans illegally entering the country. Many of the people who want to leave Afghanistan make illegal attempts to reach their destination via Greece or Italy with the help of human smugglers.
But if Germany wants to take in dozens, or even hundreds, of former Afghan military workers, they must be able to distinguish between those who are truly under threat and opportunists. It's a topic that is currently being hotly debated in ministries in Berlin. "We are not ruling out any options," says one diplomat. "Not even (allowing) those who are really threatened to emigrate to Germany." Currently, the risk to individual Afghans is being closely examined.
German planners know from the experience of the US that the demand for German visas will probably be big. For years, the US State Department has administered a program for former helpers of US forces in Afghanistan, offering about 500 visas a year to those who want to leave. There has been a huge demand for the program in recent years, and the prospect of the withdrawal of foreign troops is likely to make those visas seem even more attractive.
In comparison, the interpreter Shah's request seems modest. "I want to leave the country, but not to Germany," he says. A small sum, perhaps a thousand dollars, would be enough, he says. "We would then move to Iran or Pakistan where we would be safe," he says.
But for now he doesn't want to bring up the sensitive subject with his German employers. "We need the money every month and I don't want to risk that."
*The name of the Afghan interpreter has been changed at his request for fear of retribution.
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