At the Taliban's Mercy: German Military Fears for Afghanistan's Future

By Ulrike Demmer and

German soldiers are preparing to withdraw from an unstable Afghanistan, a massive operation that defense officials are in the process of organizing. But military leaders worry that they'll be leaving Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban -- and warn that the country could fall apart.

Bundeswehr soldiers plan to leave Afghanistan soon. But what will they leave behind? Zoom
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Bundeswehr soldiers plan to leave Afghanistan soon. But what will they leave behind?

When the German military, the Bundeswehr, leaves its field base in Faizabad at the foot of the mountains in northeastern Afghanistan in a few months, it will take along everything that isn't nailed down, leaving behind little more than a green pasture, swept as clean as a campground in the winter. In recent years, 550 German soldiers have trained Afghan troops at the base and provided stability to the region. Now 100 Bundeswehr moving experts will take half a year to pack their bags.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a massive undertaking that also involves many soldiers in Germany. "It's easier to climb up a tree than to get back down again," says Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière. The key questions associated with the withdrawal remain unanswered. When will the Bundeswehr withdraw which of its forces? Which soldiers are organizing the move? Which material has to be brought back to Germany? And what happens after 2014?

The Germans are taking inventory in Afghanistan at the moment. About 6,000 containers of material, 1,200 armored vehicles and 500 non-armored vehicles need to be brought back to Germany. The teams tasked with this feat include experienced logisticians and combat support troops, as well as telecommunications experts to keep the lines up and running while the satellite systems are dismantled, and cleaning personnel to disinfect the vehicles prior to departure -- a process known as a animal epidemic prevention.

Hand-me-down Equipment

If the Bundeswehr intends to continue fulfilling its mission to train Afghan security forces and provide stability in the country, it will need additional support from Germany. Between 250 and 600 soldiers are needed for a move of this magnitude, Defense Ministry officials say vaguely. It's an optimistic estimate. The Dutch, for example, needed about 700 specialists to withdraw their 2,000 soldiers from the Afghanistan, while the Americans brought in 4,000 experts.

But the decision to send hundreds of additional soldiers to Afghanistan will be difficult to achieve on the domestic political front. Under the current mandate, the German parliament, the Bundestag, plans to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from 5,350 to 4,400. The Defense Ministry in Berlin is now considering whether soldiers whose only job is to pack suitcases and wash vehicles even require such a mandate.

Private companies will handle most of the shipping and transport from Afghanistan to Germany, and they will only be packing materials that are worth shipping. For example, worn-out old containers used for housing are to be turned into scrap metal in Afghanistan.

The Afghan army would be delighted to get armored personnel carriers like the Marder. And the Defense Ministry in Kabul has said that it would also be happy to take some of the Bundeswehr's armored howitzers and helicopters. "The more material we get, especially for operations from the air, the faster we can take over additional areas from ISAF," says one of the leading Afghan generals.

Limited Faith

But that is unlikely to happen. "You can't just turn over armored personnel carriers like expired drugs. They need maintenance and upkeep," say Bundeswehr officials. They point out that the Afghans are not trained to operate the heavy equipment, and that leaving behind tanks may not even be compatible with guidelines for arms exports. There seems to be limited faith in a stable Afghanistan. "I don't want to know who the German gun barrels could end up being pointed at," says a senior officer.

Defense Ministry officials tend to lower their voices when the conversation turns to the thousands of Afghans who have cooked, done construction work, translated and acted as informers for the Bundeswehr. "We shouldn't solve the problem Saigon-style," they say, referring to the many local employees that the Americans left to the capriciousness and mercy of the victors in Vietnam. The unpleasant fates they would face if the Taliban returned to power after the Bundeswehr withdrawal is why the Germans intend to give about 1,500 Afghans the opportunity to come to Germany.

There is growing concern in Afghanistan that it won't just be the combat troops that will be gone after 2014, but that trainers, civilian helpers and, most of all, billions of dollars in development aid will also disappear. One thing is clear, says a Bundeswehr general: "If we leave the Afghans alone after 2012, everything there will fall apart."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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