Afghanistan Attacks Germany Upping Pressure in Hunt for Taliban Leaders

The German government is searching for a strategy against the Taliban. The ringleaders of recent attacks on German forces are known, but local authorities have obstructed their arrest. Now Berlin is upping the pressure.


Attacks on German forces and installations like this one near the German embassy in Kabul on Jan 17 are becoming more frequent.

Attacks on German forces and installations like this one near the German embassy in Kabul on Jan 17 are becoming more frequent.

General Abdulmajid Azimi is sitting on a sofa in his office in Kunduz, proudly pointing to a list of 10 Afghan names on the table in front of him, a list he has already discussed with his counterparts in German intelligence. The names are those of Taliban leaders from the Kunduz region believed to be responsible for the majority of attacks on German soldiers. The 10 names represent 10 different problems for the authorities. "If we could catch or kill these men," says the general, "things would settle down in Kunduz very quickly."

It is only 7 a.m., but Azimi is already perspiring in the 30-degree Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) heat in Kunduz. Azimi, head of the NDS, the Afghan intelligence service, has already been in his office for an hour. The Germans count him as one of their few reliable allies in the region.

Azimi's NDS forces, in a joint operation with soldiers from Germany's KSK special forces unit, made a spectacular catch in early May. They arrested one of the Taliban commanders, a man named Abdul Razeq who is believed to have ordered several bombing attacks, after an hours-long chase through the mountains 60 kilometers (37 miles) southeast of Faizabad in northeast Afghanistan.

It is one of the customs in Kunduz that Taliban leaders like Abdul Razeq either receive a warning from local authorities ahead of such an operation or, once arrested, are miraculously released after the local governor has put in a good word for them. But things were different this time.

The men from the KSK refused to let Razeq go and flew him directly to the Afghan capital Kabul on board a German military transport plane. In Kabul they turned him over to a special prosecutor with the intelligence service. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a Christian Democrat (CDU), personally handed his Afghan counterpart a dossier based primarily on information gleaned by the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, which had had the Taliban commander under surveillance for months. The dossier was intended to provide enough evidence to put Razeq in prison for years. The aim is to turn him into an example of Germany's desired approach to dealing with Afghan terrorists.

German Patience Running Out

The arrest of the presumed senior Taliban official, with the help of the KSK troops, and his subsequent transport to Kabul were carefully staged. The mission was designed as a show of strength and to send a clear message to Afghan authorities and insurgents alike: We are no longer willing to be taken advantage of. Anyone who attacks us must expect to be pursued.

For months, a group of senior German government officials have been searching for a response to the growing number of attacks on German soldiers in Afghanistan. Part of that response entails developing a more efficient security strategy for the wider area around Kunduz, which the Germans are supposed to be controlling militarily and where at least 600 German soldiers are stationed.

Jung and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who paid a visit to German troops in Afghanistan in April, are tired of constantly having to explain to soldiers why the authorities know who is attacking them, but can do little about it.

Thirty-two German soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2002. There have been about 30 attacks on German troops since the beginning of this year alone. On the day the KSK flew Razeq to Kabul, Minister Jung attended a memorial service for a 21-year-old soldier from the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. The private first class was mortally wounded on April 29 when his patrol became embroiled in a fierce gun battle.

Jung's claim that the Germans "are not involved in a war there, but in a stabilization mission" is currently being refuted day after day. The insurgents, a band comprising the Taliban, Pashtun clans and criminals, have drawn Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, into a gruelling conflict in which soldiers are shooting, killing and dying. A conflict in which the Germany army was to build bridges, plant trees and provide security has turned into a war that is also putting the Berlin government's political approach in jeopardy. Merkel has consistently praised Germany's policy of restraint as a model, partly as a counterargument to the Americans' demands for a stronger German military commitment.

The tally of an ordinary week in early May documents how serious the situation is today. In the space of six days, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was involved in 138 skirmishes and exchanges of fire, and insurgents committed 41 attacks with explosives and 57 with mortar and rocket fire. The war has now spread to once-peaceful northern Afghanistan where the Taliban now have de facto control over entire areas. In the Chahar Darreh district, a stronghold for the stone-age Islamists, as well as in three other areas, the girls' sections of 10 schools were recently closed after students and teachers were scared away by threatening letters. The symbolism of the closings extends beyond Afghanistan's borders. In Germany, one of the most convincing justifications for the Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan has been that it has helped make it possible for Afghan girls to attend school once again.

Hunt for a New Strategy

The dismal situation in Afghanistan raises the question of what possible counter-strategies could look like. Unlike the Americans, the Germans are not yet willing to abandon their existing strategy and embark on the difficult task of fighting the insurgency from village to village. Since the end of last year, senior government officials have met regularly at the German Defense Ministry, at the invitation of State Secretary Peter Wichert. The attendees include Interior Ministry State Secretary August Hanning, a diplomat from the Foreign Ministry and BND Vice President Armin Hasenpusch. The chancellor sends her intelligence coordinator, Klaus-Dieter Fritsche.

The first strategy the group discussed was to increase pressure by both military and diplomatic means. The governor of Kunduz Province, Mohammed Omar, is seen as a significant problem. The BND has observed Omar on several occasions as he passed on confidential information to local Taliban officials, and he is also believed to be deeply involved in the drug trade. Parts of his police force are suspected of being Taliban sympathizers. "On the one hand, we are training Afghan police officers, and on the other hand, they're working against us," says a top official in Berlin. "This cannot continue."

At the end of last October, the two state secretaries, Wichert and Hanning, flew to Kabul and asked to see President Hamid Karzai. When they met with Karzai's national security advisor, Zalmay Rassul, things became clearer to the two German officials. According to the delegation's internal report, Rassul "was confronted with the question as to why certain known backers of the attacks on German police personnel and soldiers were not being called to account." The president's advisor, the report continues, promised to "push for the introduction of necessary steps."

Germany Pushing for Dismissal of Provincial Governor

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat (SPD), has upped the pressure even further. During his visit to Kabul at the end of April, he made it clear to the government there that the Germans are no longer willing to cooperate with the provincial governor. Steinmeier openly told Afghan Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar that Germany wants the governor dismissed.

That wish will likely be fulfilled soon. Karzai's staff recently indicated to German diplomats that Omar will be replaced this summer. Once that happens, the German government hopes to embark on the second part of its strategy: pursuit of the men behind attacks on German military personnel. The Abdul Razeq case is seen as a blueprint. Under the new strategy, the BND will operate much like a police authority in Afghanistan, where it will collect evidence. From now on, the Bundeswehr will always fly prisoners directly to Kabul.


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