Expanding Violence Germany Discovers a War in Afghanistan
Part 2: 'Holy War against the Germans in Kunduz'
Kunduz, an old market town and trading hub, has been the scene of bloody atrocities again and again in the last few decades. Hatred is deep-seated, and memories are long. When they recaptured the city in November 2001, Northern Alliance troops killed thousands of members of the Pashtun Taliban, even though the religious warriors had already surrendered. Instead of treating the Taliban fighters like prisoners of war, the Northern Alliance locked them in containers, where they suffocated or died of thirst. For their part, the Taliban killed thousands of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks when they took over the country in the mid-1990s.
If there is one man who fuels this animosity more than anyone else, it is Mullah Salam from the Imam Sahib district. As the radical Islamic extremists' military chief for north-eastern Afghanistan, Salam's influence within the region under German ISAF command extends well beyond Kunduz Province to Baghlan and Takhar and the region bordering Tajikistan. He is blamed for the murder of the three German soldiers in a Kunduz market on May 19, 2007, as well as a suicide bombing on Aug. 6 in Pul-i-Khumri, in which two German soldiers were severely burned. He is also believed to be responsible for many of the nighttime rocket attacks on the German base in Kunduz.
Few people have ever seen the man. He is believed to be around 40 and unusually corpulent for an Afghan, and he wears a beard that he keeps shaved below the cheeks. It is said that Salam never sleeps more than one night in the same house, and that he never stays in the same place for more than a few hours. He pays bomb-makers and recruits like-minded people to harbor suicide bombers in their homes. He is often in Pakistan, presumably in the city of Quetta in Baluchistan, where the Taliban is believed to have its headquarters.
The Afghan intelligence agency has been on Salam's tail for months, and he is also at the top of the Germans' most-wanted list. In May, the German Special Forces Commando (KSK) failed in an attempt to arrest Salam in Kunduz.
The unit, which is being deployed under the ISAF mandate, had received a tip that coincided with the results of electronic surveillance. On the day before the actual operation, KSK "hit teams" were approaching the complex of buildings where Salam was believed to be located. But the Taliban commander had apparently been warned and had already escaped by the time the Germans moved in.
According to Salam, people have had "enough of the occupiers, and everyone hates their culture." He left no doubts as to the Taliban's ultimate objective: "We will exact revenge for every innocent Afghan killed, and we will continue the holy war until we have driven the Germans out of Kunduz and all other occupiers out of Afghanistan."
Salam's fighters are already the de facto rulers of entire districts in Kunduz Province. Earlier this year, a group of armed Taliban turned up on a field near Chahar Darreh, west of Kunduz, and asked the farmers which of them was Sufi Mohammed. One of the men raised his hand. The Taliban led him away and shot him with their Kalashnikovs. He had apparently drunk tea with foreigners. The killers left a note on the body that read: "Spy of the infidels. This is what will happen to all of you." Since then, hardly anyone within the local populace dares to cooperate openly with the Bundeswehr anymore.
Attacks on German patrols have become so common that most incidents are hardly even noticed in Germany. A convoy of paratroopers was attacked in late March. In early April, a suicide bomber threw himself between two patrol vehicles, but the soldiers escaped unharmed. In late June, insurgents detonated a roadside bomb just as two Fennek reconnaissance vehicles were driving across a drainage ditch, and then opened fire with bazookas. Three German soldiers suffered cuts and lacerations.
When asked about a suicide bomber who attacked a patrol last Monday, Salam told SPIEGEL proudly: "The martyr, Samiullah, is from Kunduz and is a great hero."
Like Samiullah, Rahmad Khan is one of the men supposedly prepared to give his life for the "holy war." He wanted to commit suicide for jihad, says Khan, a 30-year-old with a long, dark beard. But only minutes before the charges hidden in his explosive vest were set to go off, he was overpowered by a special unit from the Afghan intelligence agency NDS.
Now Khan, a Pakistani from Duawa, a village near the city of Peshawar, sits in the NDS prison in Kabul. The interrogation room is secured with iron bars, and during a recent visit, Khan's movements seemed lethargic and his gaze was almost transfixed. His mind was also sluggish and he seemed barely capable of following the conversation.
He can neither read nor write, and his only family consists of his elderly, blind mother. In return for his work as a shepherd and day laborer, his employer paid him one loaf of bread a day, and sometimes some rice and beans, but no money. "It just wasn't enough," he says.
Khan looked for work and met a man who took him to a place near the border with Afghanistan, where he was introduced to an Afghan mullah. The mullah talked a lot about jihad and fighting the American infidels. He gave Khan food and pills that improved his mood, and bought him new clothes. "He was very good to me," says Khan.
According to Khan, the mullah convinced him that it would be best for him to gloriously end his life as a devout Muslim by becoming a martyr. "He said to me: 'Look, you have nothing and no one, and you are nothing. What is to become of you? But paradise waits for you there.'" Of course he was afraid, says Khan, but the mullah gave him the pills to overcome his fear, and he gave in eventually.
The suicide bomber is the final link in a complex network connected, through regional commanders, to advisors surrounding the one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar, as well as to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Western troops attempt to buy off minor players to kill those higher up in targeted operations. NATO is currently working off a list of senior members of the Taliban prepared by intelligence agencies, legal advisors and ISAF Commander McKiernan. More than 150 so-called "high value targets" have already been "neutralized" -- which usually means "killed."
Three senior Taliban leaders are on the target list assigned to the Germans in northern Afghanistan. One of them is Mullah Salam. If men like him were eliminated, Western forces could at least be somewhat assured of being safe against new attacks until the Taliban leadership found replacements. But this could take months, say experts.
So far, however, the KSK has not managed to capture any of the high value targets. In March, the so-called Baghlan bomber, Mullah Younus, eluded the elite German unit during an operation near Pul-i-Khumri. Younus is believed to have been behind a devastating, November 2007 attack on a sugar plant in Baghlan, in which 79 people died, including dozens of children, members of parliament and politicians.
Unlike the British and the Americans, the Germans have hesitated to request armed drones or combat aircraft to kill such terrorists. The Germans do not want war, and yet the war came to them some time ago.
"Anyone who hopes to bring peace to Afghanistan," says Sharif, the Afghan intelligence general, "can learn from the Tajiks, who quickly stabilized their country in 1997, after a five-year civil war." At the time, says Sharif, the new country's new rulers prepared long lists of war criminals, and then sent masked gangs around the country. "They arrested the criminals, placed handcuffs on their arms and legs and threw them into the big Amu Darya, the river that forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan."
The Germans simply do not always understand how to set priorities, says the general, with a touch of indulgence for his mild-mannered Western allies in his voice. "Sometimes there are only ugly solutions."
By Konstantin von Hammerstein, Susanne Koelbl, Alexander Szandar and Sami Yousafzai
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Germany Discovers a War in Afghanistan
- Part 2: 'Holy War against the Germans in Kunduz'