The Bundeswehr's Afghan Nightmare: How the Taliban Are Taking Control of Kunduz

By Markus Feldenkirchen, and

Six years ago, German soldiers came to Afghanistan's Kunduz province to carry out reconstruction work. Now they are engaged in a bitter struggle with the resurgent Taliban, who are trying to sabotage Thursday's presidential election. Many local people no longer believe the Europeans can help them.

The war in Afghanistan now revolves around men like Khanzada Gul. The West is fighting for him, and so are German soldiers. They want to prevent people like Gul from changing sides and joining the enemy -- the Taliban.

Gul, who is dressed in jeans and a striped T-shirt, is leaning against a railing in front of the city of Kunduz's only ice cream parlor, which is on the same street as the main bazaar. The 26-year-old's face is clean-shaven and his hair hangs over his forehead in carefully gelled curls.

Until recently, Gul was earning a good living and could still afford the stylish casual jeans he is wearing. He was the security chief for an orphanage in Kunduz operated by a Korean aid organization.

But then, four weeks ago, Gul's life was turned upside down. As he was driving home to the village of Chawkandi, 20 minutes by car from downtown Kunduz, Gul was stopped by half a dozen men on motorcycles. They were members of the Taliban and warned him that they would kill if he didn't quit his job with the foreigners.

He recognized residents of his village among the group of Taliban, men his age and younger. A few days later, Gul was stopped again. This time the Taliban destroyed the music cassette in his car stereo. "This is your last chance," they said threateningly.

Gul was so afraid that he quit his job. But now he doesn't know what to do with himself, and he spends most of his time walking around aimlessly in the city. "Anyone who works for the foreigners is punished with death, and the same applies to those working for the government. How am I supposed to make a living?" he asks, shrugging his shoulders. "Maybe I'll join the Taliban soon."

An Afghan Spa

Part of the reason the Germans came to the northern Afghan province of Kunduz six years ago was to help men like Gul. They wanted to help the Afghan population rebuild their shattered country. The Taliban was far away, and the conditions were right for the mission.

At first, many soldiers nicknamed their base in northern Afghanistan "Bad Kunduz," a play on the names of German spa resorts like Bad Münstereifel or Bad Wimpfen ("Bad" being the German word for bath). The location, in a valley between spurs of the Hindu Kush mountain range, is unusually lush for Afghanistan. And it was a quiet place, back then at least, and the war was far away.

Today the region has turned into a battleground, and the Germans, who never wanted to get involved in combat, are in the thick of it. The Taliban have returned, and they are gaining more and more support among the local population. Gul could be the next to join them.

Ironically, it is in Kunduz, where the Germans set out to prove -- to themselves and to the rest of the world -- that the war against terror could also be conducted with peaceful means, that fierce battles are now being waged. The province has become a dangerous place for German soldiers.

Shooting Back

The situation in northeastern Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically in the last two years. "We are involved in gun battles every other day. We are being shot at and we are shooting back, and we are killing a few of them," says Sergeant Major Wolfgang Marx, a spokesman for the German military, the Bundeswehr, in Kunduz.

German soldiers have also begun deploying heavier weapons. They go into battle in Marder ("marten") infantry fighting vehicles or request air support from the allied bombers thundering through the skies above Kunduz. The Bundeswehr must now come to terms with a fact that Germans have previously found difficult to accept: Winning the war in Afghanistan requires engaging in active combat.

The upcoming elections in Germany and Afghanistan serve as a new source of motivation for the enemies of Afghanistan's young democracy. This Thursday, an estimated 15 million registered Afghan voters will elect a new president, in a vote that will determine whether the incumbent, the pro-Western President Hamid Karzai, will remain in office for another five-year term.

The Taliban also have Germany's parliamentary election in mind as they seek to escalate the situation in Kunduz, the province where German troops are stationed. They hope that a rising death toll will rob the Bundeswehr of political support at home.

When Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a member of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), talks about Afghanistan, it usually sounds as if he were discussing a potential candidate for European Union membership. He consistently portrays the situation as everything but dramatic and paints the current mission as a success. But the situation on the ground in Kunduz tells a different story.

'I Would Crush Him with My Own Hands'

Abdul Razak Yakubi, the police chief in Kunduz, is feeling extremely upset on this particular morning. A suicide bomber has just blown himself up on the road heading south out of the city. Aside from the suicide bomber, no one was killed. But Razak, who is known in the region as "General Razak," knows that the incident will only spark the usual talk, namely that he doesn't have the city and the surrounding province under control. The problem is that the gossip is true.

Razak has stopped counting how often this year his mornings have begun with attacks. The brawny police chief, with his carefully parted hair, always seems slightly tired, yawning frequently and closing his eyes while on the telephone, as if he were about to doze off.

"If we ever caught one of the Taliban beforehand, I would crush him with my own hands," he says, clenching his fists. Razak is about to leave on a trip to Chahar Dara. It's the district where the Taliban are the strongest, a region of small villages over which the Afghan government and the Bundeswehr have lost control. Razak has lost more than two dozen police officers to booby traps and attacks in Chahar Dara in recent months.

Eight dark-green Ford Explorers pull up to the police station in Kunduz, each carrying six police officers armed with machine guns and a rocket launcher. Razak puts on his Ray-Ban sunglasses and his cap.

He gets into the third vehicle, holding his radio to his mouth. "Drive in the middle of the road," he shouts, "the bombs are always along the edge." He instructs the men at the rear to open fire on any car they see approaching the convoy at high speed. "Shooting first," says Razak, "often saves lives." He speaks from experience.

A Reign of Fear

The town of Chahar Dara is 20 minutes from Kunduz. The men at the market wear long beards and the traditional Afghan outfit: baggy trousers and a loose shirt. The few women out in public are dressed in burqas and are always accompanied by a man. To avoid possible punishment for engaging in "un-Islamic behavior," most citizens already abide by the dictates of the Taliban.

Within the past year, the Taliban here have grown in strength from a small group to a force to be reckoned with, imposing a reign of fear over entire communities. They are quick to discover which residents work for the government or foreign aid organizations. This has prompted local employees of international organizations to delete contact details from their mobile phones, travel in unmarked vehicles and leave any documents tying them to foreign organizations at home before traveling to the district.

Teachers who teach girls run the risk of having their noses and ears cut off. Sufi Mohammed, a farmer, was shot to death for drinking tea with foreign soldiers. The Taliban in Chahar Dara have announced that they will cut off all fingers stained with the indelible ink used to prevent multiple voting in the presidential election.

In the night before July 19, the Afghan army, together with police units and 300 German soldiers, launched operation "Adler" ("Eagle") in Chahar Dara. The combined force of 1,200 men drove the Taliban out of the town and conducted house-by-house searches.

But now the German troops are gone, and the Afghan army has also withdrawn. The Taliban are waiting in the surrounding area, planning their return.

Waiting for Attacks

"We do what we can," says Razak, getting out of his SUV. He maintains three small outposts in Chahar Dara district, each manned with 10 police officers and 10 soldiers. The men saddled with this dangerous job stand at attention in the scorching heat, on a small hill that rises above the surrounding rice fields, as they greet their commander. They are wearing sandals and ragged uniforms, and most of their weapons seem older than they are.

Mohammed Ibrahim, 40, the commander of one of the three small outposts, speaks quietly to prevent Razak from hearing him. "All we can do is wait for attacks," he says. "If we're lucky, we can defend our lives." He and his men have only one hope: to be relieved soon.

As improbable as it seems, Razak and his men are the hope of the West and of the Bundeswehr. The German soldiers will only withdraw from the Hindu Kush region once Afghan forces are strong enough to keep the Taliban under control.

But both the Afghan police and army are still a long way from being ready to take over from the Germans. In the last two years, the government in Kabul has slashed Razak's "tashkil," or personnel list. Some 500 police officers were sent to other regions of Afghanistan, forcing Razak and his men to abandon many areas in the Kunduz region, leaving them to the Taliban.

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