What Germany Left Behind: A Feeling of Abandonment in North Afghanistan
Six months ago, Germany's military withdrew from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Since then, regional security has eroded and many of those left behind feel abandoned. Some say that the departure came too soon.
Captain Faridoon Hakimi is sitting next to an enormous barbecue once used by the Germans to grill sausage, munching on an almond and squinting. There isn't a cloud in the sky and the midday sun is blazing down onto the former German military camp in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Next to him stands a solitary sign in the German language indicating the location of a certain "Büro Baumlade."
It has been six months since Hakimi's friends and allies from Germany left the camp. All of the parking slots for helicopters and armored vehicles are empty. The white blimp, which once held cameras aloft in order to monitor the camp's immediate surroundings, no longer floats in the sky above.
"We don't need reconnaissance," says Hakimi, 32, the new camp commander who oversees the Afghan National Army troops stationed there. "We have our eyes." The blimp, he says smiling, was a waste of money anyway. Hakimi wears a carefully trimmed beard -- and rubber sandals.
His eyes shift to the horizon where the mountains are slowly turning green, indicating spring's approach. Hakimi knows that the green also means the Taliban will soon be back.
For 10 years, Germany was responsible for the province of Kunduz as part of its role in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It was the first real war the Bundeswehr, as Germany's military is known, participated in, and Berlin's aims were lofty indeed. German development experts were to help extend rights to women, democracy was to be fostered and the economy was to grow significantly. Billions of euros were made available -- and the blood of German soldiers was spilled. Kunduz was a place of great sacrifice.
Until Oct. 6, 2013. On that day, Germany handed over the camp to Afghanistan.
"They ran away," croaks the deputy police chief for the Kunduz province in his office and gestures dismissively. "They simply ran away. It was too soon."
"It was too soon. It was like an escape." One can hear almost exactly the same thing from the mouths of German soldiers, some of whom even compare the Bundeswehr's departure with that of the Americans from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. "If there is one thing the Bundeswehr is really good at, it's retreating," is a sentiment that can often be heard in the government quarter in Berlin these days.
What, though, did the Germans really manage to accomplish in Kunduz and what did the 25 Germans killed in the region die for? What did all the money buy? What remains of the mission? Berlin would rather not provide an answer to these questions: A complete evaluation of the Afghanistan engagement is not on the agenda.
But there are answers to be found in the Kunduz Province itself. The closer one gets to the former German camp, the emptier the roads become. There are no trees to block one's view of the far-away horizon; occasionally, a burned out car or oil drum lies on the shoulder of the road. The pizza delivery service once patronized by the Germans has closed its doors. A few uniformed soldiers are rolling out barbed wire at the camp's entrance. "We are here to guard the buildings," says Said Muyer, 25, of the Afghan police. He says he is essentially in charge, adding that the real commander hardly ever makes an appearance.
The road passes by empty guard houses and torn open sandbags on the way into a ghost town of broad roads, vacant barracks and open ground where helicopters once took off and landed. It seems like a settlement of aliens who stayed for a time but then left after realizing that the planet was inhospitable -- despite the fitness studios, bars and the big German barbecue.
Some 2,000 soldiers were once stationed in the camp, but there are few relics of their presence among the ruins: an aluminum can that once contained processed meat, packages of "Exotic" drink mix and a few slices of whole-grain bread.
"They only left garbage behind," says Muyer, kicking a container of potato goulash. "We don't eat stuff like that." He rattles the door leading into the mess hall, inside of which the tables and chairs are neatly stacked. "Everything is locked up," he says. Muyer says that the refrigerators were already gone by the time he arrived, sold in the town market.
Escape to Germany
Muyer and a few dozen others have been living in three of the roughly 50 buildings in the camp, originally built by Berlin at a cost of some 126 million. Where, though, is the police training center mentioned in a January progress report produced by the Foreign Ministry? Muyer looks confused and shakes his head saying it's the first time he's heard of it. A few of his men are playing volleyball while others are shelling beans for dinner. One wants to know the best way to escape to Germany.
The walls in a building called "Dresden" are badly cracked while water drips through the roof in "Frankfurt." "We aren't plumbers," Muyer says.
In the middle of this declining ghost town, the army commander Hakimi is fighting -- in his rubber sandals -- to maintain a semblance of order and normality. He and his men are neighbors to Muyer and the police contingent, but the small area under Hakimi's control is separated by a wall. And it looks as if Hakimi is trying to maintain a mini-Germany in defiance of the surrounding decay. There is no garbage to be seen, no potholes and even the cedar trees lining the roads are still green. "Twice a week, every soldier has to muster and help clean up," Hakimi says, a convention he introduced. Hakimi also bought two solar panels to make up for the frequent power outages that plague the camp now that it is reliant on the Kunduz grid after the Germans removed their generators.
The commander rhapsodizes about his time serving alongside the Germans. They used to sit around the fire drinking beer and wine and even cooked together, he says. He was particularly impressed by the Germans' dependability. During the summer, they would sleep side-by-side on their cots in Baghlan. "They really trusted us," Hakimi says, squinting all the more.
Then he begins talking about last winter, the most difficult one of his life: It was the winter that the Germans left. Hakimi wears a tattoo of a crescent moon and a star between his thumb and index finger, made by a battlefield comrade back when Hakimi was fighting in the mountains against the Taliban as part of the Northern Alliance. "Face to face," he says, describing the campaign. He has been at war his entire life, but nothing compares to last winter.
A Breather Between Firefights
He spent much of it making repeated visits to the province of Badakhshan. It was cold, he says, and his men didn't have proper boots. There was no heating, there were constant power outages and they repeatedly ran out of fuel. The rebels, Hakimi says, are just as unpredictable as they have ever been. He says he got air support from ISAF only at the very beginning of his foray into Badakhshan, and only for a few days.
"The enemy's morale has improved," he says. "I saw many of my men die." Of the 720 soldiers under his command, only around 150 are in the camp. The rest are fighting elsewhere and Hakimi, too, could be ordered into battle at any time.
And then it becomes eminently clear that the small, secluded Germany where Hakimi is sitting has little to do with his reality. The camp was the nucleus of the German mission to Afghanistan for 10 years; for Hakimi it is merely a place where he can grab a breather between firefights.
In Berlin, politicians like to talk about the number of Afghan girls who are now able to attend school and how smoothly the elections went. "Normal life is possible along the main traffic arteries," a German general recently intoned before journalists in Berlin. Not everything is bad in Afghanistan; that is the message. But security in the north is crumbling, a truth that even government reports have been forced to admit, and the situation looks even more fragile when one takes a closer look at the fleeting coalitions and peculiar people it depends on.
The men of Afghanistan's local police forces, for example, provide something of a final bulwark in the fight against terrorism. The US military trained the poorly paid auxiliary policemen as a way of augmenting the regular police and military. The idea was to show a greater presence in rural areas where otherwise there would be nobody.
Today, the auxiliary police can be found in outposts that are only reachable on dirt roads; they often consist of little more than a few sandbags and mattresses thrown on the ground. The police are armed with Kalashnikovs and get around on motorcycles, and it is not a rarity for them to lose an eye or an arm -- or their lives -- in roadside detonations. Some commanders have even stopped leaving the safety of their own homes. Human rights organizations have accused local police units of extorting protection money from the populace or committing acts of violence. It is also said that local warlords have infiltrated the police units with their own militia. When one asks members of the police force in the district of Chahar Dara about their ties to the notorious warlord Mir Alam, for example, they remain silent.
- Part 1: A Feeling of Abandonment in North Afghanistan
- Part 2: Development Work? What Development Work?
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