Every night, the soldiers leave the run-down police station in Chahar Darreh and head out in search of the enemy, passing through silent mountain villages in countryside crisis-crossed by two wide rivers and a multitude of smaller waterways.
The area they patrol is home primarily to ethnic Pashtuns, it is about 15 kilometers (9 miles) long and 5 kilometers (3 miles) wide. The police station in Chahar Dara, where German Special Forces have established a small base, is a few kilometers from the German military, or Bundeswehr, field camp in Kunduz.
The road there -- affectionately known as "Road Little Pluto" in military jargon -- crosses the high, sandy Western plateau and supply trips to, and from, the base are at least as dangerous as the nightly patrols. The Bundeswehr's armor-plated vehicles -- with names like Dingo, Mungo and Fuchs (Fox) -- struggle slowly down the dirt roads, in full view of the enemy for whom surrounding farms, cornfields and tall bushes are simply better camouflage.
The Americans launched a new offensive in the southern province of Helmand last week but German troops see most of their action in Chahar Dara in the north. They regularly encounter homemade roadside bombs and face firefights -- and they are both killing and being killed.
In Chahar Dara a dusty area of about 75 square kilometers (27 square miles), Germany is waging a war -- even though it isn't supposed to be called a war. Memorial services were held in Bad Salzungen, a city in central Germany, last week for three soldiers killed nine days earlier in an accident, during a skirmish in Chahar Dara. And early this week Chancellor Angela Merkel presented four soldiers with the Ehrenkreuz, the Bundeswehr's cross of honor, in recognition of their courageous efforts to assist fellow soldiers after a suicide bombing in Chahar Dara. Two of their comrades died.
In the past, such awards were referred to as Orden, or medals, but in modern Germany they resist that description. Mainly this is because of historical associations with the role of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of the Third Reich, during World War II and the Holocaust. And avoiding any mention of Germany's military history shapes the nation's current mission in Afghanistan, just as it shapes debate about the mission. War cannot be referred to as war -- and it must be conducted in as un-warlike a fashion as possible.
The German public is increasingly skeptical about the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of Germans are currently in favor of a rapid withdrawal. In reality, the opposite is taking place. The Bundeswehr is becoming more entrenched in this war and it is also gradually going on the offensive.
German Combat Missions: Like a Turtle With Teeth
According to information SPIEGEL has obtained, the rules of engagement have been -- and are still being -- revised. The impression is that the German deployment is a peacekeeping operation engaged in what is referred to as a "stabilization mission." But in fact recent events suggest that the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan is, surreptitiously, becoming more aggressive.
This shift is another move towards the normalization of Germany's feelings about itself as a nation. It's something that German governments have been working toward for 60 years. And in many respects, the country is already there -- so now is the time for Germany to consider military matters. This is one of the most difficult areas for Germans to contemplate -- after all, there was a time when German soldiers were best known for their terrible assault on most of the rest of the world.
The steps being taken now are small. Germany is approaching combat missions like a turtle: slowly and well-armored. Nevertheless, it is one that is gradually becoming a snapping turtle.
On April 8, nobody even noticed when a few words -- important words --were deleted from a NATO document. One of the deleted phrases was: "The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is taking place or is imminent."
On March 3, 2006, the Germans had this sentence added to the NATO operations plan for Afghanistan as a "national clarification" or caveat. Bundeswehr soldiers were only to shoot in self defense. And there were further explanations in bylaws 421 to 424 as well as in rule 429 A and B. For instance, Germans were not to refer to their actions using the word "attack." Instead they would talk about the "use of appropriate force."
Changing the Rules So Quietly It's Almost Secretive
None of this applies anymore. Major General Erhard Bühler, director of Joint Commitments Staff, had spent a long time working to have these phrases removed. In April, Bühler finally managed to secure Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung's approval.
This was done so quietly as to appear almost secretive. Not even the German parliament's defense committee was informed of this small but significant change. When Werner Hoyer, a politician with the business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), heard of the changes last Friday, his first reaction was to ask why parliament had not been made aware of the changes -- especially before voting on a resolution to approve the deployment of German military personnel in the NATO AWACS mission in Afghanistan.
Niels Annen, a member of parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), voiced his irritation over the Bundeswehr's secretive handling of the case. "The way this was done raises questions," Annen said -- even though, he added, he had no fundamental objections to the adjustments. Fellow member of parliament Eckart von Klaeden, with the conservative Christian Democrats, said that, generally, he welcomed the change even though he had only just heard about it. It makes sense to "make the rules of engagement conform to military requirements and to the mission's goals," he said.
This policy is now outlined on the pocket-sized reference card of combat guidelines that German soldiers carry with them. The Bundeswehr calls it "a structural adjustment;" the Defense Ministry's legal department is considering swapping Chapters II and III on the pocket card around. This means that the chapter, "Use of Military Force to Complete a Mission" would be placed ahead of the chapter, "Use of Military Force in Self-Defense" -- which, one assumes, would mean that the former becomes more important. Additionally, to avoid future misunderstandings, examples will be included to illustrate to soldiers when they are permitted to use lethal force.
Another issue being discussed is whether the guideline in Section II, No. 4 should be amended. The current wording states that defensive measures can be taken if an attack is "imminent." The words could be changed to read that defensive measures can be taken "if there is evidence of an approaching attack."
When the Bundeswehr got into a gun battle in Chahar Dara two weeks ago, some soldiers thought that they had to wait until they were shot at before they could fight back. Essentially they turned themselves into targets -- and this is exactly the kind of confusion the German military wants to eliminate.
Winfried Nachtwei, the German Green Party's parliamentary expert on defense, said it was reasonable to amend the pocket card if it meant that German soldiers can better defend themselves. "But," he argued, "we must be careful not to be drawn into a whirlpool of escalation. It would be counterproductive to end up looking like we are hunting the Taliban, nor would that be compatible with our mandate. Anyone who thinks you can simply clean up out there is out of touch with reality. You can actually get further over three cups of tea in Afghanistan."
'We Will Strike Back with all Necessary Force'
However soldiers in Kunduz told a different tale. "We will strike back with all necessary force," said Colonel Georg Klein, 48, commander of the field camp.
Combat has become routine for German soldiers stationed in Kunduz. After returning to the camp, the men mentioned their "TICs," or "troops in contact" (military jargon for enemy contact) almost casually. For them, requesting American "Reaper" drones to fire at booby traps is just common practice now.
Anyway, clearly not all the soldiers are unnerved by the finer legal details of combat. On May 7, in view of a German convoy, a number of Afghan fighters jumped off their motorcycles and went into combat position. But before they could fire their rockets and assault rifles, the Bundeswehr troops opened fire on them, killing at least two.
"What happened afterwards gave the troops a sense of security," said Klein. Instead of launching an investigation, as would have been the case in the past, the public prosecutor's office in Potsdam, near Berlin, concluded that the soldiers had acted in self-defense. Klein and his men see this as setting a precedent. "Soldiers need courage in the field, what they certainly don't need is fear of a public prosecutor," noted one officer.
Helping Build Bridges -- That Get You To Battle On Time
The Germans are still helping the Afghans build roads but their assistance is no longer purely altruistic. The Mischa Meier Bridge, named after a fallen soldier, is currently being built across the Kunduz River in Chahar Dara. It's good for the local economy but the bridge will also benefit the Germans, allowing them to reach the combat zone more quickly.
Waiting for them in that combat zone are adversaries who believe that Germany is a weak and fickle nation. "The Islamists are trying to attack what they believe is the weakest link in the chain," said August Hanning, a state secretary at the German Interior Ministry who is familiar with intelligence information coming out of Afghanistan. Hanning knows that the insurgents follow the opinion polls and debate in Germany and that they are trying to provoke the Germans with numerous, small attacks. They reason that the higher the death toll, the sooner the Germans will withdraw from Afghanistan.
"We all remember Madrid," said Hanning. "The attacks there influenced the election." He is referring to al-Qaida terrorist attacks in the Spanish capital in 2004. The then-Prime Minister José Maria Aznar lost the election -- partially because of the way he initially blamed Basque terrorists for the bomb attacks on commuter trains because he was worried he might be blamed for his decision to support the Iraq war. After the election, poll victor José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero withdrew Spain's troops from Iraq. The Taliban hope to achieve something similar in Germany.
The Taliban leadership has sent money and fighters to the north and has ordered the regional commander there to increase pressure on the Bundeswehr. "Many of us are tired of fighting and of constantly being hunted," Mullah Shamsullah, the second-in-command in the north, told SPIEGEL. "But the leadership in Pakistan is pressuring us to become even more active."
Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, believes there are five active terror cells in the region. And more and more of what they call "foreign fighters" -- soldiers who are coming to fight in the Hindu Kush for ideological reasons -- are joining them.
Uzbek fighters tend to gravitate to the north -- the area borders their homeland so they are easily able to go into hiding there if necessary. Two of the terrorist groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), appear to have it in for the Germans; their fighters include two brothers from the western German city of Bonn and Eric Breininger, a convert from Germany's southwestern Saarland region.
According to the BND, 60 of these fighters -- mostly Uzbeks and Chechens -- are already in the Kunduz area where they have found shelter with a supportive local population in small villages northwest of the city.
"The north," said Hanning, "is increasingly important, strategically." The Taliban has managed to block NATO's supply routes through Pakistan several times so the alliance is shifting focus to a northern route, along which weapons, ammunition and food can be shipped to the crisis region, firstly by air or rail, and then by truck.
Daily Life Looks More and More Like War
For the Bundeswehr, daily life in the north looks more and more like war. "And the soldiers actually want it to be called that, and not trivialized or whitewashed," commented a German officer in Afghanistan.
But German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung would be skating on thin legal ice if he began referring to the German effort as a "war" rather than the usual: "stabilization mission" or "combat situations." It's quite possible that if he did do that, then his parliamentary adversaries would have him up before the country's constitutional court.
Because if the Bundeswehr were officially fighting a war, someone might have the bright idea of asking whether the "state of defense" provided for in the Basic Law (Germany's constitution) applied. If it did, a virtual plethora of emergency regulations would come into effect. Rules that would prohibit the dissolution of the Bundestag and take away Jung's title as "Commander in Chief." This would pass to the chancellor, Angela Merkel.
In addition, many life insurance policies have a "war exclusion clause," which means that the insurer is not required to pay beneficiaries of an insured person who dies of war-related causes. Under a German law that guarantees benefits to members of the military deployed on missions abroad, the federal government would then be required to pay those insurance benefits instead.
Another difference between war and not-war has to do with waste recycling. German soldiers in Afghanistan are currently subject to the rules of "peacetime operation." In other words, the soldiers are currently sorting their trash into plastic, paper and ordinary trash bins -- something that's common practice in most German households where recycling is available. A special military unit monitors Afghan waste disposal companies to ensure compliance with German environmental standards and military policemen use radar guns to make sure that the garbage truck drivers don't exceed the speed limit in the field camps: 30 kilometers per hour.
Sending Trash Recyclers to Afghanistan, Not Fighters
None of this would apply in a war -- which explains why some soldiers are probably eager to see the official status of their mission changed. If nothing else, it would absolve them of the responsibility to sort garbage.
On the other hand, it's important for the politicians to give the impression that the people they have sent to Afghanistan are trash recyclers, not fighters. The Bundeswehr's Afghanistan mission is more unpopular than ever in Germany, which makes it tempting for populists to call for a withdrawal -- especially during an election campaign. Left Party politician Oskar Lafontaine, for example, has not shied away from this.
But Merkel's major challenger in the race for the Chancellery, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, cannot afford to make such demands. He's in a difficult spot. On the one hand, traditionally pacifist SPD voters are critical of the combat mission. On the other, Steinmeier has been personally responsible for the German government's Afghanistan strategy for the past four years and cannot simply call for a withdrawal from one day to the next. His credibility would be ruined.
Indeed, the growing calls within the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Merkel's CDU -- for a debate on withdrawal must be of great concern to Steinmeier. Foreign policy expert Hans-Peter Uhl, for instance, has said it is "time to shift the priority of the Afghanistan mission from the military to the police."
So what happens if the conservatives end up stealing the Social Democrats' pacifist manifesto? Steinmeier has warned that a "withdrawal discussion" right now would be "irresponsible for a country that isn't just anyone and that has international responsibilities."
He knows that the handling of Afghanistan as a whole can be likened to the adoption of an Afghan child. It would be irresponsible to send the child back into poverty, simply because it didn't turn out exactly the way the adoptive parents had hoped.
RALF BESTE, ULRIKE DEMMER, MATTHIAS GEBAUER, SUSANNE KOELBL, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, HOLGER STARK, ALEXANDER SZANDAR