The concept is known as "partnering." Rather than merely training Afghan troops in classrooms and on bases, German Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan go on patrol with their local counterparts and fight alongside them during operations. The idea is to ensure that Afghan soldiers will be adequately prepared once they begin taking full responsibility for their country's security in the coming months and years.
On Friday, however, the much-praised model received a decisive setback. Upon returning to base after a routine patrol in the northern Afghanistan province of Baghlan, 26-year-old Afghan army recruit Mohammed Afzal, who had been training with the Germans, opened fire on a group of Bundeswehr soldiers. One was killed instantly with two additional soldiers succumbing to their injuries hours later. Six additional German troops were wounded, some critically.
Now, an intense debate has broken out among German soldiers in Afghanistan, with many telling SPIEGEL ONLINE that they are afraid of further attacks perpetrated by Afghan trainees. Some even went so far as to speak of a revolt -- with several German soldiers now refusing to go on further patrols or missions with Afghan troops.
"The mood," one soldier wrote from the outpost OP North where the shooting took place, "has hit rock bottom." He said he didn't want to judge all Afghan troops, but added that German soldiers have become much more apprehensive.
Since the shooting, which ended with Afzal dying in a hail of return fire, the wounded have been flown back to Germany for treatment. And on Monday, Bundeswehr troops at the base in Mazar-e-Sharif took leave of their departed comrades as they were driven past an honor guard to the nearby airport.
Immediately after the attack, the Afghan unit, or kandak, to which Afzal belonged was temporarily deactivated, pending an investigation. A replacement unit has been flown in. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, under intense pressure at home over accusations that he plagiarized large chunks of his Ph.D. dissertation, said that, even as close cooperation between Germans and Afghans comes with a certain amount of risk, Friday's deadly shooting "cannot be allowed to put the concept of partnering in doubt."
That hope, however, would appear to be in vain. For many German soldiers, the deadly shooting merely confirmed the myriad doubts they already held. Many of the soldiers at the OP North outpost have only 10 days left on their tours. A soldier from the contingent reported that no one is interested in taking additional risk and are thus refusing to cooperate with Afghan troops. Many soldiers, including several non-commissioned officers, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that they have "no desire" to continue joint missions.
"We are supposed to train them, but they consider us to be infidels who don't belong in their country," one soldier said. Another, in response to a question about fear among the German troops, responded that, after the attack, "one doesn't know anymore if they will suddenly turn their weapons on you."
Acting at the Behest of the Taliban
Afzal, according to an Afghan politician from the region, was reportedly one of those who developed an intense hatred for the Germans. On Monday, Afghan Brigadier General Zalmay Weza, commander of all Afghan forces in the northern part of the country, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that Afzal may have been acting at the behest of the Taliban. "We have indications that the attacker was recruited by the Taliban," he said. German military sources declined to confirm the claim.
Whether an isolated incident or not, doubts about the partnering concept had been growing well before Afzal's deadly attack. Disagreements had become commonplace, leading in some cases to fights. Some German troops report having been insulted by Afghan soldiers because they eat pork. Others say Afghan troops would simply desert operations as they were in progress. Soldiers from other NATO countries, including Britain and the United States, have lodged similar complaints.
Drugs, some German troops say, are an additional problem. "Many of our Afghan comrades wander around here completely stoned," said one soldier in Mazar-e-Sharif. "It is impossible to tell if they are fit for duty or not." Other soldiers confirm the report, saying that many from Afzal's unit made it a habit to smoke hashish outside the camp perimeter in the evenings.
The Afghan military is doing its best to deflect concerns about the future of the mission. "It is a tragic case that has shocked us all," Weza told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But it is an isolated case." He said that the incident had "shaken and saddened" all of his troops and that they valued the German presence in Afghanistan. On Monday, as part of the memorial services at Mazar-e-Sharif, the Afghan army had submitted a letter of condolence to the Bundeswehr.
'I Don't Think Partnering Will Work'
Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised an extensive investigation in a phone call to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Weza also pledged to investigate reports of drug consumption among the Afghan troops.
In Germany, the incident seems certain to launch a debate about the partnering concept. Politicians in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, have long felt they have been poorly informed about the details of the mission. A closer look is sure to reveal other, less publicized, instances of problematic cooperation. Furthermore, while drug consumption within the Afghan military is hardly a secret among those in the know in Afghanistan, German soldier reports about having to go on patrol with partners under the influence are sure to alarm the German public.
And doubts among the German troops are sure to grow. "I don't think that (partnering) will work," one officer told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The chemistry between them and us simply doesn't work."
He allowed that training the Afghan military is certainly possible and necessary. But he insisted that trainers from the US or from Western Europe are not likely to find success. "I am certain that Turkish soldiers would be better equipped," he said. The cultural differences, he added, aren't as great.