Expanding Violence Germany Discovers a War in Afghanistan

For years, Germans have preferred to see their country's presence in Afghanistan as armed development assistance. That myth is now becoming more difficult to maintain as the violence spreads to the north where the Germans are based.


Seen from the air, downtown Kunduz looks like a large board game, a series of symmetrically interlocking rectangles and streets intersecting at precise right angles.

But this aerial image is merely an illusion of a perfect order. In reality, life is anything but orderly in this northern Afghan city, where German soldiers have been stationed for the past five years. No one is more aware of this than Mohammed Sharif, a general with the Afghan intelligence agency. When he greets a visitor in his office, sitting in a large velour armchair, Sharif is barefoot, his shirt unbuttoned down to his chest. His skin is deeply tanned and his head is covered with a thick mat of hair. Fans help keep the room cool on this hot, late summer day.

Sharif is 48 years old. Most Afghan men of his generation have either died in combat or have survived and secured influential positions. As a member of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the general is in charge of operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in northern Afghanistan.

The news broadcasts on the television set in Sharif's office are almost routine by now: aerial bombardment in the south claims civilian casualties, an entire village is reduced to rubble in the west, and now the Americans and the government of President Hamid Karzai are arguing over whether seven or 90 Afghan civilians died in the incident. A master sergeant from the southwestern German city of Zweibrücken died when his patrol vehicle hit an explosive device set by the Taliban. And German soldiers at a checkpoint killed three civilians: a woman and two children.

This is daily life in Afghanistan -- and for Sharif. Unfortunately, as he points out. The general sighs and says: "Kunduz is the frontline in the north, once again."

Kunduz, of all places, is where the Germans and the rest of the world had hoped to prove that the war against terrorism could also be waged with peaceful means. It is a place where German soldiers could have been mistaken for aid workers, if it weren't for their weapons -- where men in camouflage built schools, delivered supplies to hospitals and dug wells, while their NATO allies in the country's south and west waged a brutal and costly war.

Those allies whose troops were stationed in Kunduz managed to avoid the deadly W word -- W as in War -- or so it seemed. The coalition governments in Germany, under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and now under Chancellor Angela Merkel, had various terms for what the Bundeswehr was doing in Afghanistan, calling it "networked security," a "civilian-military approach," "stabilization" and "reconstruction assistance." But the W word was one they preferred not to use. Two-thirds of German citizens are opposed to the Bundeswehr's Afghanistan mission, and politicians in Berlin read opinion polls more often than reports on the military situation.

But now, after the death of a young German paratrooper at the end of August and the first civilian casualties at the hands of German soldiers a few days later, Bernhard Gertz, the chairman of the German Armed Forces Federation, has finally uttered the unmentionable word. Last week, Gertz, a colonel, said that the mission in Afghanistan was nothing other than a "war against a fanatical enemy willing to do anything." The dead soldier did not merely "lose his life," as Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said at the memorial service, but "gave his life for Germany," as Gertz said.

"Are we at war here?" a reporter asked the defense minister in Kabul the next day, to which an exasperated Jung replied: "We are fighting terrorism, but we are not at war." Only seconds later, his host corrected him in front of live cameras. War? "Yes, we are waging a war," said David McKiernan, the American four-star general commanding the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF).

Meanwhile, the usual suspects were making themselves heard in Berlin. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a foreign policy expert with the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), warned against an overly "simplistic choice of words," while his fellow party member Christian Schmidt, a parliamentary state secretary to the defense minister, cautioned Germans to "be very restrained when talking about pathos in our country." The Bundeswehr, Schmidt said, is not at war, but involved in a "robust peacekeeping mission."

For members of the Left Party's parliamentary group, as well as a few Green Party members like Hans-Christian Ströbele and Winfried Hermann, who have always been against Germany's involvement in Afghanistan, demanded as they always do the withdrawal of German troops. Meanwhile, Green Party members Jürgen Trittin and defense expert Winfried Nachtwei defended the German mission in Afghanistan, insisting that there is currently "no alternative" to the Bundeswehr's presence in the country.

An increasing number of NATO and OEF troops are losing their lives in Afghanistan.

An increasing number of NATO and OEF troops are losing their lives in Afghanistan.

In early October, the cabinet in Berlin plans to approve a new mandate that would increase the number of German troops in Afghanistan from 3,500 to 4,500, including the men who will be monitoring Afghan airspace on board NATO's AWACS aircraft. But the debate over the value of the mission -- or lack thereof -- has been oddly muted. The German daily Die Zeit concludes: "An astonishing commonality unites opponents and supporters. Both are dangerously uninterested in the conflict."

This indifference stands in stark contrast to the dramatic deterioration in Afghanistan in recent months, which has gone largely unnoticed by the German public. In May, for the first time, more Western soldiers died in this large country straddling the Hindu Kush Mountains than in Iraq. While the situation in and around Baghdad slowly seems to be stabilizing, it is spinning out of control in Afghanistan. Forty-seven soldiers fighting for the Western alliance died and 238 were wounded there in August alone.

According to a report prepared for the US defense secretary, the Americans plan to send up to 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by 2011. A combat unit of 2,500 men, possibly even a brigade of 4,000 men, will be deployed this year to increase troop strength in the embattled eastern part of the country.

Last Thursday, NATO's supreme allied commander briefed the NATO Council about an important change in the military command structure in Afghanistan. In a month, ISAF Commander David McKiernan will also assume the command of all other US forces in Afghanistan, including the troops deployed in fighting terrorism as part of Operating Enduring Freedom (OEF). This will essentially eliminate the separation between ISAF and OEF.

The situation is extremely tense, as evidenced by the fact that more than 4,000 Western and Afghan troops were needed last week to move a giant turbine less than 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Kandahar to the embattled Helmand Province, where it will be installed in a new hydroelectric power plant. Despite the helicopters, armored vehicles and fighter jets defending it, the Taliban repeatedly attacked the convoy. Unconfirmed reports suggested that 250 insurgents may have died in the attacks.

Germany has incrementally increased its involvement in Afghanistan over the years.

Germany has incrementally increased its involvement in Afghanistan over the years.

Slowly but surely, the war is creeping into the north, where things had been relatively calm until now. Since 200 German paratroopers were transferred to Kunduz last spring, the Bundeswehr has significantly strengthened its presence -- to the irritation of the Islamist fundamentalists with the Taliban. But "normal businesspeople, namely drug dealers, also find the checkpoints and military presence extremely disruptive," says a representative of Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) in Kabul.

The criminal element of the insurgency could explain the timing of the escalation. The opium harvest is now complete and the raw opium, a brown paste, has been refined into heroin. Although the Bundeswehr does not take any action against opium farming, it does repeatedly block the opium trade routes to the north, conduits through which the drugs eventually reach Europe. This, concludes the BKA's analysis, explains why the situation is so delicate. Drug barons are apparently hiring the Taliban and ordinary criminals to attack the Bundeswehr, or providing funding to the insurgents. "It is a vicious circle of violence," say BKA officials.

Kunduz is once again the Taliban's operational center in the north. About one-third of residents are Pashtuns from the Ghilzai tribe, originally from the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where the Taliban enjoys strong support. The extremists use family ties to develop local contacts and find shelter. The Taliban already launched into brutal attack mode last year, when a suicide bomber killed three German soldiers and five Afghans in a crowded Kunduz market.

Sharif, the intelligence general, is a Tajik from an affluent clan in neighboring Takhar Province. Compared to this world of Taliban commanders, warlords and corrupt government officials, Sharif is considered a man of integrity. He occasionally explains Afghanistan's dark side to German military officials.

Sharif says that he even knows the names of those who have killed German soldiers, including who was responsible for the death of the most recent victim, the 29-year-old paratrooper. "Pakistani intelligence backs a small group of local Taliban fighters in the village of Omar Khel," says Sharif. "They did it."


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