According to Colonel Georg Klein, the kind of yellow plastic containers you can buy at the store currently pose the greatest threat to German soldiers in Afghanistan. The canisters, with a capacity of about 10 liters (2.6 gallons), may have once contained motor oil or pesticide. But then someone filled them with nails and added explosive material and a fuse. The repurposed yellow canisters are now hidden by the roadside, waiting for Germans.
The colonel even has a film to illustrate his point. He is sitting with a group of visitors in the darkened conference room at the German field base in Kunduz, Afghanistan. His most important guest is Peter Struck, the head of the center-left Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, who was Germany's defense minister from July 2002 until November 2005. Struck has always been in favor of the deployment of German troops to Afghanistan, and he is the man who famously said that "Germany is also being defended at the Hindu Kush," referring to the Afghani mountain range. It's 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, and Struck is now in Afghanistan himself.
The colonel's film depicts one of the Bundeswehr's Fox armored personnel carriers, with a red cross on a white background painted onto its rear. The Fox, driving along an Afghan road, happens to be being filmed by someone in a vehicle traveling behind it. Suddenly a yellow fireball appears to the left of the Fox, the image shifts and the picture goes black.
The explosion was caused by a homemade bomb and, fortunately, no one was hurt this time. Then the colonel moves on to his next topic: gun battles. As chance would have it, a Bundeswehr convoy is being ambushed at roughly the same time, 10 kilometers (six miles) from the German base. Once again, the Germans were lucky and there were no casualties.
Struck is muttering something to himself as the colonel speaks. It is an odd sound, not exactly a "yes," but something between agreement and concern. It is probably his last official trip to Afghanistan, and roughly his 12th. Struck, 66, will not run in the next parliamentary election in September. Last week, he traveled to the places that gave rise to the quotation for which he is best known, spending two days in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz.
It is time to take stock of the situation. The question is: Was Struck's statement wrong when he made it? Has it become wrong in the meantime? And why is the German military still in Afghanistan?
According to the most recent survey by the Berlin-based opinion research company Infratest Dimap, only one-third of Germans support the Bundeswehr's Afghanistan mission today. When the mission's mandate was extended in October 2008, 128 members of the Bundestag voted against the measure. Given the current situation in the Kunduz area, more zinc coffins can be expected. Among the latest casualities was German soldier Sergej Motz, killed in a gun battle on April 29.
The Haunting 'Sponge'
Peter Struck is attending a luncheon in his honor at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) in Kabul. When asked what the typical wound is in this war, Matthias Beste, a German military doctor, says the word "sponge." Shots in the stomach, once feared, are no longer as common, thanks to modern bulletproof vests. The "sponge" is a consequence of the plastic canisters. The nails penetrate the soldiers' legs in such a way that blood spurts from dozens of holes. If fellow soldiers are unable to bandage the leg within 10 minutes, the wounded soldier will likely die. If they do bandage the leg in time, it usually has to be amputated.
This is one of the side-effects of war, but hearing about it produces only one reaction: No one should have to be in a place where his leg can turn into a sponge. The word haunts Struck and his group as they travel through Afghanistan.
The next day, in Mazar-e-Sharif, another sentence is uttered that takes getting used to: Today's Bundeswehr hero holds hands with other men. And while that may be hard to believe, it is true.
Early in the morning, Struck flies by helicopter from the German base in Mazar-e-Sharif to a camp known as Mike Spann. Along the way, the passengers are given a brief reminder that they are in a war zone. Suddenly there is a loud noise and a flash near the open tailgate, and the helicopter veers sharply to the side, shifting the contents of the passengers' stomachs. In a situation like this, it helps to glance over at the machine gunners at the side portholes. They seem calm. For them, the situation is nothing new.
The on-board computer has reported a threat, prompting the helicopter to fire so-called "flares," which explains the loud noise and flash coming from the rear. The flares are extremely hot and divert heat-seeking missiles away from the engine. The computer is sensitive and sometimes reports threats that are in fact nothing but reflections, which is what happened this time. But now Struck and his companions know how it feels to be in a helicopter that could be under fire. It isn't a good feeling.
Now it's Major Dietmar M.'s turn. He is a senior mentor, meaning he trains soldiers in the Afghan national army. At Camp Mike Spann, his charges show the visitors what they have learned, which includes repairing cars in accordance with German standards, maintaining weapons and caring for the wounded. The major talks about how difficult it is to build trust.
It is a good sign, he says, when one of his Afghan partners begins taking hold of both hands in greeting, instead of simply shaking hands. It is an even better sign when he rubs his cheek against Major M.'s cheek. And when an Afghan soldier feels truly at ease with Major M., he could very well take his hand and stroll through the camp with him, holding hands. This is the custom in Afghanistan.
The major has no objection. He is a practical man who knows that wars are not just won with gunfire. And he is a man who is prepared to overcome his culturally ingrained opposition to men holding hands so that this war can be brought to an end, both for Afghanistan and for the Germans.
Pinning Future Hopes on Afghan Army
A smart military campaign begins with thinking about how it will end, and with the question of how best to get out. The Germans are pinning their hopes on training the Afghan national army. A Bundeswehr colonel who is also a mentor says: "We eat with them, we sleep next to them, we live with them and we move forward with them."
If all goes well, the national army will be able to provide for security in Afghanistan one day, thereby defending German security at the same time. It will take time, and perhaps it will never quite materialize, but working to achieve this goal is the right thing to do. Thus, Major M.'s willingness to hold hands with other men becomes an argument in favor of this campaign. The Bundeswehr is in fact doing a great deal to make sure that it will not be forced to stay in Afghanistan forever. It has an exit strategy.
There are many briefings during Struck's trip, sessions in dimly lit rooms in which a colonel or a general struggles through a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, putting half of his audience to sleep. The presentations end up as jumbled collections of cards, little flags and arrows, and as an endless series of abbreviations likely to induce a feeling of dizziness in those still awake: CIMIC, TLSR, OMLT, JQRF, OCC-P/R, CJTFG, IED, GIRoA. There are literally hundreds of them, and if this war is lost, it will probably be because an SBCT was mistaken for an IBCT.
But some of the presentations are interesting. Brigadier General Jörg Vollmer, the commander of the Northern Region, reports on a generally calm situation. The city of Mazar-e-Sharif is blossoming, he says, opium production has been stopped, for the most part, and roads and bridges are being built. There is undoubtedly an element of war propaganda to his presentation, but it is undisputed that northern Afghanistan is much quieter than the south and east, areas with majority Pashtun populations.
Northern Afghanistan is home to larger populations of Uzbeks and Tajik, which are not as susceptible to the Taliban's religious and belligerent fanaticism. In addition, the efforts of the Bundeswehr and troops from other countries have prevented the Taliban from spreading widely in the north. This, too, is an argument to support Struck's famous statement.
'It Was Not the Wrong Decision to Go to Afghanistan'
One of the problem areas in the north is Kunduz province, where many Pashtuns live. When Struck lands there on Thursday afternoon, he is asked to put on a bullet-proof vest -- protection against the yellow plastic canisters -- but he wants to smoke a cigarette first, and he drapes the vest loosely around his shoulders as if it were a flag sporting the colors of his favorite football club, Borussia Dortmund. But the soldiers are insistent and emphatically help him don the vest. The combination of the bullet-proof vest and Struck's bald head give the politician an oddly turtle-like appearance.
A short time later, he is sitting in another dimly lit room, watching another PowerPoint presentation. He sees the images of yellow canisters, and of explosions. He listens to the numbers: 31 attacks with firearms against the security forces in Kunduz province this year, 15 rocket attacks, 27 booby traps. These are the worst statistics since the Bundeswehr arrived in Kunduz. And each new attack reinforces German doubts about Germany's mission in Afghanistan.
Colonel Klein, the Bundeswehr commander in Kunduz, says that the intelligence agencies have informed them that Taliban leaders in the north have come under growing pressure this year, as their commanders sourly remind them that they should be doing more. In a typical example of the local Taliban's response to this pressure, groups of fighters drive through the area on motorcycles, wielding bazookas. The Bundeswehr responds by taking up pursuit. At some point, the Taliban fighters jump from the motorcycles and open fire on the Germans, who hold them at bay until Afghan security forces are able to arrive and defeat the Taliban fighters.
Can this be an argument to call for the withdrawal of the Bundeswehr? Should German soldiers be yielding to motorcycles, yellow plastic canisters and small rockets, just because they are now being used with greater frequency? It is horrible to see a leg turned into a sponge, but the Taliban would not interpret a Bundeswehr withdrawal as a sign of peace, but as an opportunity to expand their territory. And an Afghanistan under Islamist control could, in turn, become a safe haven and training ground for terrorists.
If that happens, every German will be at risk, and it is a soldier's supreme duty to prevent harm from being inflicted on civilians, even if this means risking harm to himself.
The Bundeswehr, armed with scruples, has traveled a long way to arrive at a sentence with which a German colonel now says, matter-of-factly, to Struck: "An infantryman's job is to lie down and shoot." This is what the Bundeswehr is doing now, responding robustly to every threat. The mission would only stop making sense if these German troops allowed themselves to be intimidated by attacks.
The Threat to Girl's Schools
After the subject of gun battles has been dealt with, the next PowerPoint presentation in Kunduz is about girls' schools. Once a symbol of the humanitarian character of the German mission, they are the most widely discussed subject during Struck's visit. The presence of the Bundeswehr was meant to ensure, in part, that Pashtun girls in the north could go to school, and they were long able to do so -- until a few weeks ago, when it was reported that a few schools had been closed.
This raised the question of whether the Bundeswehr should condone the change. The discussion now centers on whether Germany's armed forces in Afghanistan should limit their efforts to fighting militant Taliban and militant drug gangs, relegating the subject of human rights and democracy to a secondary status.
In Kunduz, Struck is told that teachers and parents have in fact been intimidated in a few Pashtun villages. Some schools apparently remained closed for days, until the fear of a direct threat had passed. A few schools, Struck is told, have reopened, although the Bundeswehr apparently did not play a significant role.
Is it even conceivable for German soldiers to be overseeing a region where many girls have no better prospects than to become household slaves? This is not the same thing as bringing down a corrupt regime. Indeed, it is the most blatant antithesis to Germany's national and social order.
German armored personnel carriers drive past a group of schoolchildren, and only boys watch them pass, and no one seems to notice. The Taliban, Struck learns, have won the war they believe is the most important one. That, too, is an argument in favor of the German troops staying. The Taliban cannot be allowed to prevail. Besides, the Germans would also share some of the blame for the disasters that would unfold in the wake of a German withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The impression that remains at the end of the short trip is that the Bundeswehr does not do everything right, but it does do many things well. Between holding hands and lying down and shooting, it has developed a suitable strategy for this country. Together with the efforts of German police and aid workers, it is a package that justifies remaining in Afghanistan. It also gives the Germans self-confidence in their dealings with the Americans, who are increasingly seeking to dominate the mission in Afghanistan.
Struck says: "What I said remains correct. It was not the wrong decision to go to Afghanistan, nor is it the wrong decision to stay there."