Hate and Violence Mood in Northern Afghanistan Shifts against German Troops
Part 2: Bigger, Better Bombs...and More of Them
The Taliban's main weapon against the Bundeswehr in northern Afghanistan has been homemade explosive devices. These bombs are now so powerful that they can penetrate the thick armor of the Marder and the Fuchs, a German armored personnel carrier. On May 25, a bomb ripped through the armored floor of a Fuchs northwest of Kunduz, killing a German captain and wounding two others.
According to an initial investigation, the bomb that destroyed the Marder consisted of about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of explosive material that had been buried in the road. The bomb was designed so that the force of the explosion would go straight up. Soldiers report that the tank was practically torn in half. In the chaos following the explosion, it took medics an agonizingly long time to recover the wounded and dead from the tank's wreckage.
The Marder was at the head of a column of about 20 Bundeswehr vehicles. After receiving a tip from an Afghan source on May 29, the soldiers had been on a mission to search for hidden bombs. They found and defused the explosives the source had described. But then the patrol decided to search for more bombs and moved forward along the same road. When the first Marder passed the spot along the road where the bomb was hidden, the Taliban detonated it by remote control.
The design confirms a trend of bigger and more sophisticated bombs that the Bundeswehr has been seeing in northern Afghanistan in recent weeks. The number of explosive devices has also apparently increased. For example, during a patrol on May 3, a chain of hidden explosive devices caused minor damage to three German vehicles moving as part of a convoy.
A Bloody Confrontation
Another threat to German soldiers comes from the sensitivity of the local population, which already harbors little goodwill toward the foreigners. Ten days after the attack on General Daud, the Bundeswehr witnessed firsthand just how quickly the mood can shift. For years, with its wide streets shaded with plane trees, Taloqan, the capital city of Takhar province, had been considered a calmer, smaller counterpart to troubled Kunduz. The relationship with the government was relaxed, and Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa had even praised the generosity of the Bundeswehr, calling it "one of my ministries."
On the night of May 17, a US special forces unit staged yet another raid, this time in the primarily Uzbek village of Gawmali, near Taloqan. A tailor there had allegedly provided the insurgents with vests to be used in suicide attacks. According to ISAF, the tailor's wife and daughter pointed weapons at the soldiers and did not respond to warning shots and calls. In the end, the women, the tailor and a guest were killed.
In the early morning hours, a rumor spread that "the foreigners" had killed four civilians after raping the two women. What's more, the foreigners were said to have descended upon the village for the sole purpose of spreading terror.
At about 8 a.m., a first wave of protesters marched through the streets of Taloqan carrying four bodies covered in flowered shrouds. The procession wound its way toward the foreigners at the German base. The protesters started throwing stones, but they pulled back after the Germans fired warning shots.
The next wave arrived two hours later. This time there were an estimated 2,000-3,000 people, some of whom were armed with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. They tried to storm the German base, but Afghan guards and Bundeswehr soldiers fired on the crowd. By evening, 12 protesters were dead, and local hospitals were treating 75 people for wounds.
Caught in a Catch-22
On the following day, the Bundeswehr reported that there were "no indications that attackers had been killed by shots coming from German soldiers." But, by the next day, the message had changed. The Bundeswehr released a statement online indicating that German soldiers might have shot an attacker after all. "According to current information," the statement said, "it cannot be ruled out that one person was shot in the head-and-neck area."
A United Nations investigative report now concludes that the Bundeswehr shot and killed three attackers in Taloqan. The UN account describes the situation as follows: The mob was raging out of control, four Afghan and two German soldiers were already wounded, and the camp's generator was on fire. The Germans had applied the correct methods of escalation, first firing with signal pistols, then firing warning shots in the air and, finally, shooting at the attackers with live ammunition.
The UN calls the behavior of German soldiers "appropriate." The same conclusion is reached in the German investigative report that the Defense Ministry has kept under wraps for more than a week now, along with the images recorded by surveillance cameras at the base. Though the reports seem balanced, the Germans soldiers are still hated in Taloqan.
Still, there's no denying that they were caught in a Catch-22 situation. If they had not defended themselves, the unrest would presumably have taken the same course as an April 1 incident in Mazar-e-Sharif, where reports that an American pastor had burned a copy of the Koran in Florida drove a mob into the streets. The mob stormed the local office of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), killing three UN diplomats and four guards. Since a demonstration had been pre-announced, German commanders ordered the Nepalese guards not to shoot. The guards obeyed their orders -- until the intruders tore their weapons away and shot them.
Yet another one of the problems faced by foreign troops in Afghanistan is that President Hamid Karzai has a tendency to deftly side with the Afghan victims. He promptly sent a commission to Taloqan to investigate the attack. It offered the president's condolences to the families of the tailor and the other victims and gave each of them compensation of 50,000 Afghani, the equivalent of roughly $1,100 (750). Each was also promised a plot of farmland measuring 500 x 500 meters (25 hectares, or roughly 62 acres).
Of course, none of this matters much in Taloqan, where residents now believe that the foreigners are killers. Now that the local population's confidence in the foreigner aid teams has been destroyed, the last remaining German reconstruction and development workers and the entire UN staff are being withdrawn.
- Part 1: Mood in Northern Afghanistan Shifts against German Troops
- Part 2: Bigger, Better Bombs...and More of Them
- Part 3: An Ominous Ethnic Free-for-All