The men who represent Germany's interests in Afghanistan are at a loss. They're standing at the end of the road -- a lieutenant colonel, a lieutenant, and a commander. Their faces are yellow with dust, their spiky hair juts out from their modern flak jacket armor. They just spent ten tortuous hours driving -- a journey through clouds of yellow dust that grates on the teeth and tastes metallic on roads with potholes the size of craters and abyss-like drops on either side, with inclines so steep that their vehicles almost tipped over. Now, just 15 miles from Faizabad, their destination, the road plays its worst trick of all. It disappears altogether. The three men look on as brown torrents of water gush down from the mountain, obliterating the road beneath. The heavy rains have finally come, from ominous clouds that had hung over the snowcaps of the Hindu Kush all day. What was a road is now a mudslide.
The three soldiers discuss their next move. As night draws in through the milky dusk, the words "drug baron" come up in the conversation, sounding more sinister than ever. The men are in Halga Jar, in northern Afghanistan, a region that thrives from the opium trade. Soldiers are considered bad for business here.
They discuss how to avoid having to stop for the night. The lieutenant colonel suggests they drive back to Kunduz, but one of their trucks has run out of brake fluid. A 10-hour nighttime drive without brakes would be madness. The lieutenant and commander suggest continuing onward. Their vehicles should be able to handle the rough terrain and floods. But the road is also fraught with perils.
Not long ago, four American soldiers were killed here, the lieutenant commander says, when a landslide flushed a tank mine onto the road. The soldiers know they have no choice but to stay put. After turning around their vehicles -- four all-terrain "Wolf" trucks and one armored "Dingo" patrol vehicle -- they set off in search of a spot to stay overnight. The soldiers in the "Dingo" peer out from the windows in silence as they bounce up and down over potholes, their vehicle wobbling like a drunken elephant. On the green hills, colorful flags flutter over graves. The convoy comes to a halt when a herd of goats blocks their path.
"People around here don't look so friendly anymore," comments the driver. "This is drug zone number one," adds the passenger alongside him. "We need protection," says the driver. They wave at the shepherds.
The convoy stops at a fruit grove. It's 8 p.m. and the 11 German soldiers prepare for a night under the stars.
The German Army, or Bundeswehr, has been active in Afghanistan since 2002. Some 1,420 soldiers are based in the capital, Kabul, with another 320 in Kunduz, and 200 in Faizabad. The area between these last two towns is one of the world's richest areas for cultivation of opium, the raw material used to make heroin.
Close to 90 percent of the world supply of raw opium is produced in Afghanistan. In 2004, production increased by 17 percent to 4,200 tons. The area of land used for the cultivation of poppies, the opium plant, expanded by 64 percent, now encompassing 131,000 hectares.
Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has stated that "the mandate of the German forces does not include combating drugs." Poppy fields are not to be burned, nor are laboratories to be destroyed.
The mandate for operations in Afghanistan expires on October 13th. Discussions regarding its renewal are well under way. In Berlin, there is considerable debate over whether a renewed mandate should target drug production.
Back in Germany, approximately 150,000 people are addicted to heroin. The estimated cost for fighting drug abuse and addiction there amounts to several billion euros.
It would be naïve to assume that German drug problems would be solved only if the Bundeswehr were able to hinder the production of drugs in Afghanistan. However, the current ready availability of relatively cheap heroin is indeed linked to the military victory of US-led forces in the country. As the country won back its freedom, peasant farmers were able to freely turn to lucrative poppy cultivation -- which was banned under penalty of death by the Taliban, but is now profitable thanks to the authoritarian regime's elimination and the peace and stability brought by the German forces in northern Afghanistan.
There must be a good reason for ordering the German troops to do nothing. The three main reasons offered are as follows: If the Bundeswehr were to take action, opium production would simply continue elsewhere. Secondly, the Bundeswehr has the job of keeping the peace so that Afghanistan can become a stable nation. If they turned their attention to fighting drug production, they would risk losing the support of the people and the fragile stability hitherto achieved. Finally, the drug warlords are dangerous, and any action would put the lives of German soldiers at risk.
So it seems that victory over the Taliban spelled defeat in the war on drugs. While the poppy fields thrive in Afghanistan, the struggle in Germany to defeat the product of these very same plants is a desperate one. On the home front, the players include customs officers, public prosecutors, the police, social workers, parents and the drug addicts themselves.
Aachen, Customs House
Customs Inspector Rudolf Esser straps on his three-pound bulletproof vest. He and his colleague, Inspector Lorenz, get into a Volkswagen van and drive from Aachen's Customs house to a service station on the A4 autobahn, just short of the Dutch border.
At 11:20 a.m., they are in position. At 11:40, colleagues in a second customs vehicle alert them to a suspicious car on its way from Holland. "Red Golf, German license plates." Esser floors the accelerator, tires screeching. Having overtaken the Golf, Lorenz presses a button to illuminate the sign "Customs - Follow Me." The driver of the Golf pulls over, the two young men in the car are asked to get out, then they're patted down by the officers. Searching the Golf doesn't take long. Time is at a premium, but nothing is found. During the past year, the Aachen mobile task force has seized 511 kilograms (300 pounds) of heroin and prosecuted 900 people involved in drug running. Esser and Lorenz are well aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg, But they do believe they are getting somewhere.
Most of the heroin in Germany enters via the Netherlands. Its journey takes it from Afghanistan to Turkey, where Kurdish clans control most of the drug trade. Then on to Bulgaria, the so-called Balkan route, where car couriers bring the drugs into Holland. Some comes in via Italy. Customs and the Federal Criminal Police Office cooperate with the local authorities in an attempt to intercept the transit route. This is no easy task. Trying to catch the smaller transfers from Holland to Germany is even more difficult. Aachen's mobile control group numbers 15 customs officers, operating round the clock along a 150-mile stretch of border.
A short while later, at a bus stop in Horbach, customs officers await the arrival of a Dutch bus. They get on and find an Italian man sitting up front. He is shaking and mumbling unintelligibly as they haul him off, his eyes as big and white as table tennis balls. They sit him down in the Volkswagen van, where he adopts a blank stare.
Esser knows the Italian already - he has picked him up many times before carrying small amounts of heroin, which he sells to pay for his own habit. Lorenz had once filed a report on him to the State Prosecutor. But before long, the Italian was back on the bus.
Esser thinks of his own two daughters, whom he hopes will never end up like this guy. Motivation for the job comes easy for Esser. He doesn't look for major victories, he just wants the dealers to feel insecure, afraid they might run into him at any time.
In the van, the critical moment has come. Lorenz searches the Italian's clothing and bag, then asks him if he is carrying syringes. The Italian mumbles something. Lorenz empties the contents of his rucksack and four needles drop onto the table. Despite the health risk, Lorenz prefers not to wear gloves. "I have to be able to feel when I am frisking somebody, it's the only way to find something."
On the job, Lorenz is cold, watching the suspect's every move. Once, a suspected dealer pulled a gun on him and Lorenz replied with a warning shot. This time, the game is easier -- the Italian junkie is clean and free to go. He packs his syringes and staggers off. Esser and Lorenz drive back to the customs office. Their shift has come to an end. This time they came up empty.
It is 7:30 a.m. and 11 German troops are about to embark on a 10-hour journey from Kunduz to the outskirts of Faizabad, exactly where the road is flooded. The convoy will be heading to Faizabad to deliver vehicles to comrades stranded there. One-hundred-fifty miles separate the two towns, and the road between them passes through one of the world's largest opium growing regions.
The strongest weapon the convoy has at its disposal is the "Dingo", which sports a heavy machine gun on its roof, loaded with 960 rounds of ammunition. In terms of armaments, Commander Roland Vogler-Wandler, the only soldier in the party who can be named, hails it as "the best piece of equipment in the world." Vogler-Wandler stands proud as he elucidates the useful features of his handgun and 10-pound flak jacket. Despite the fact that his high-tech armor makes him look like a tortoise, he's enthusiastic about the idea of the "infantry of the future." With modern equipment, soldiers can fight in the dark, and are instantly connected by radio. The G36 assault rifle is particularly accurate, thanks to its laser rangefinder and sights that mark targets with a red dot. The commander is especially proud of his shrapnel-resistant sunglasses.
Just a few hundred yards past Kunduz, the minesweepers' truck breaks down. They stay behind and the column moves on. The sky is blue as clouds gather over the Hindu Kush.
Berlin, Drug Support Center
So how does the junk make its way from the Hindu Kush to Germany? That's a story Leo can tell. He's a Russo-German with a deep, dark voice. Leo is sitting in the youth and drug support center in Berlin, and he tells his story in somber, broken German. (The names of the addicts have been changed).
Everything he had has been stolen, he says. Now he has nothing at all. "Isn't there some place I can get some things?" he asks. A social worker offers him the address of a secondhand clothes depot. I don't qualify for social welfare, he says, grabbing his grimy trousers, which are stiff with dirt. "If it goes on like this, I'll end up in jail," he says.
Leo was born 24 years ago in Kazakhstan. His hair is red, and so is his beard. He is small and shrunken, his eyes pale blue like a hazy sky. Because his father owned a shop, Leo was a well-dressed boy when he was 12 years old. But one day, several youths beat him unconscious and stole his clothes. They had broken his nose and one of his ribs. After the beating, an older cousin he turned to for help offered to take the pain away. "Give me your hand," he said, and then injected the heroin into his arm. Leo experienced what he called "the strongest power in the world." He has been hooked ever since.
Some time later he saw the youths who had stolen his clothes. They were a bloody mass of flesh in the trunk of a car. His cousin had helped him out, and now he wanted Leo to repay the favor. He sent him to the frontier of Tajikistan and Afghanistan to buy opium from the border guards. At first, it was just a few pounds. But in time each bundle weighed more than 20 pounds.
In 1998, his family moved to Germany. He began picking up heroin in Holland and selling it in Koblenz and Saarbrücken. Soon he became a member of the Russian mafia. When he tried to leave, they kidnapped his girlfriend, forcing him to buy her out, but not before she had been raped. They wouldn't let him leave. So he kept on dealing. He spent two years in jail for a bank robbery, six months of the time in solitary confinement for fighting. He was released in January. As for the junk, all he can say is "I'm back on it."
Leo is in the barbaric zone; a place that is a by-product of society, a fruit of its ills, a collection point for those on its fringes. And on the front lines of the zone, Katharina Wallstab is fighting her own little war. At the addiction center in Berlin where she works, she spends the evening helping addicts find a bed for the night, while encouraging them to detox and begin therapy. Wallstab is a slim woman who says that she too is "not completely free of addiction." She suffers from anorexia, an eating disorder. "Addiction is always fatal if you don't fight it," she says. When asked about her work and its degree of success, she pauses to reflect on the question, taking a deep breath while looking around. "I have to think about that," she says, and then mentions a 55-year-old junkie who has just signed up for methadone treatment. "Ask me again in six months."
But it's not like she leaves the emergency station feeling depressed at the end of the day. "I don't know if I have the right attitude for helping," she comments. Wallstab uses a firm voice with her clients; friendly but not overtly sympathetic -- more neutral than empathetic. She thinks some "fail to live up to society's expectations of them" -- and time and again she sees just how indifferent families can be. But neither does she consider the addicts to be victims. "I tell my clients: it's your choice, your responsibility, your path," she says.
The Bundeswehr and the Opium Trade
Part II -- Germany Turns a Blind Eye to Afghanistan's Growing Opium Trade
Part III -- Should Germany Sharpen its Sword in Afghanistan?