David Byers peers forth cautiously at the world from behind his narrow, steel-rimmed glasses. He's combed his short brown hair so it fits neatly under his beret. His mouth is fixed in a serious expression, and Byers looks as if he has a lot of questions on his mind. His visage is part of a photo of his batallion, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.
Private Byers was 22 years old when he was first sent into the field -- in southern Afghanistan, more than 16,000 kilometers (9,942 miles) from his hometown of Espanola in southern Canada. His mission was to help bring democracy and political stability to the land of the Hindu Kush mountains -- a land where war has raged since before his birth.
Now he lies in a zinc coffin on the United States military base in Kandahar, draped with a Canadian flag.
Byers died on Sept. 18, while on patrol in the village of Kafir Band. A man approached the private and his group on a bicycle. When the man detonated a set of explosives strapped to his body, Byers and three other Canadians were killed and roughly a dozen soldiers seriously injured.
Now eight men are carrying Byers's coffin across the airfield on their shoulders. They're holding the zinc coffin with one hand and leaning on the soldier to their side with the other. The coffin carriers don't look like grown men -- more like big boys. The bare mountains of Kandahar rise against the horizon, and the dust of the desert lingers in the air.
The eight men place Byers's corpse inside the dark hold of the Hercules airplane that will take him back to Canada, back to Espanola. Three more coffins have been placed inside the plane. So far, 42 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, most of them during the past three months in the southern part of the country.
How many lives should peace in Afghanistan be allowed to cost? The total number of Western soldiers who have died there is 504, including 18 Germans. The last German to die was 44-year-old Armin Franz, a lieutenant colonel from the reserve army of Redwitz near Rodach. He was killed in a suicide attack on Nov. 14, 2005.
Master Sergeant Carsten Kühlmorgen was one of the first Germans to die in an attack in Afghanistan. He defended Germany with his life, by the Hindu Kush mountains, said Peter Struck, who was Germany's defense minister at the time. Kühlmorgen died on June 7, 2003 at 07:58 a.m., as he was traveling to the airport by bus from Camp Warehouse, the German headquarters in the Afghan capital.
Kühlmorgen was scheduled to fly home after six months of service -- back to the eastern German city of Chemnitz. A suicide bomber in a yellow Lada taxi rammed the bus on Jalalabad Road, transforming it into a fireball. Four people died and 29 suffered serious burns. One lost a leg, another his eyesight. Most of the survivors are deeply traumatized: They're suffering from so-called post-traumatic stress syndrome or the "war shakes," as it used to be called. It's a symptom of war that has ruined marriages and destroyed men's lives.
Was it necessary? For Germany? A group of relatives made its way to this foreign world in Kabul a few months later. They wanted to know what their brothers, sons and fathers had died or been permanently mutilated for. The German military psychotherapist Karl-Heinz Biesold spoke to them following their return. "What happened became more understandable," he says, "but in the end there's always something inexplicable that remains."
The relatives visited the camp were the soldiers had been stationed. They drove to the place where the bomb had exploded. Then they went to the Shar-i-Nau neighborhood in Kabul, and stood between geranium flowers and roses, on a Christian cemetery where the German embassy had organized a memorial service.
The notable guests included Amin Farhang, an Afghan who lived in German exile for many years and is now minister of trade and industry in the administration of President Hamid Karzai. He did his best to alleviate the sadness and perplexity of the relatives: "The Afghan people will never forget the names of the great men who sacrificed themselves and died heroically to preserve the security of Afghanistan."
The problem is that Afghanistan hasn't become a secure place since the death of Kühlmorgen and his fellow soldiers -- to the contrary. Suicide bombers carried out two attacks in 2003 -- but by 2006, the number had risen to 80. More than 3,700 people died during the past 10 months: The terrorists shot schoolteachers because they were instructing girls. Civilians were killed by explosives detonated on market squares and streets. Policemen and soldiers lost their lives because they were defending their democratically elected government. Others were killed by US bombs that missed their target. In addition, 179 Western soldiers were killed.
Back then, after the December 2001 conference in Petersberg near Bonn on the rebuilding of Afghanistan, the Germans were among the first to go to Kabul. They dared to expand their mission beyond the capital and into the north of Afghanistan before others did -- the German military took responsibility for nine provinces in northern Afghanistan this summer. The risk seemed manageable: Most of the inhabitants in those provinces are of Tajik and Uzbek ancestry, making them traditional opponents of the Pashtun Taliban.
In making this move, the Germans won the respect of other NATO countries. But then, three months later, the NATO alliance expanded its operations into the Afghan south, to the heartland of Afghan drug cultivation and the hinterland of the Taliban, where skirmishes take place everyday and where NATO soldiers die almost daily in what US President George W. Bush has christened the "War on Terror."
The heaviest losses have been suffered by the British and the Canadians: Each of the countries has lost more than 40 soldiers during military operations so far. Of the 18 Germans who have died in Afghanistan, 5 died in enemy attacks and one was killed by a mine -- the others died in accidents. On March 6, 2002, the two master sergeants Thomas Kochert and Mike Rubel were killed when they tried to defuse an anti-aircraft missile near Kabul. Seven other German soldiers were killed when a CH-53 military helicopter crashed on Dec. 21, 2002.
The division of labor between the various NATO countries is now the source of bad blood between the partners. Canadian Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor would like the German, French, Italian and Spanish troops currently stationed in the relatively safe western and northern Afghanistan to be involved in operations all over the country. He wants to create pressure at the NATO conference scheduled for late November in Riga, Latvia. Re-distributing NATO troops across Afghanistan will be the "number one" issue, he has announced.
The Germans at NATO headquarters in Kabul now face open hostility: They're mocked as cowards and cop-outs. Some Europeans "obviously resist the idea that you have an army in order to fight. And I have very little patience for that," says the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann. Neumann wants the Germans to join in the fighting -- and the dying, if necessary -- in southern Afghanistan.
Neumann sits on the roof terrace of his residence at the end of Great Massoud Road in Kabul. To his left lies the dusty and overpopulated inner city, where hotels and new homes are being built. To his right are the bare and inhospitable peaks of the Kuh-i-Baba mountains. The Virginian knows this part of the world: His father served as ambassador to Afghanistan between 1966 and 1973.
Before he came to Kabul, 61-year-old Neumann was in Baghdad, where it seems there's little left to save -- yet another reason why the mission in Afghanistan mustn't fail as well. The conflict has cost 350 US soldiers their lives so far. The ambassador speaks quietly, but more clearly than diplomats usually do: If Afghanistan falls back into the hands of the Taliban, he warns, there will be no peace for people in the West -- including Germans.
The US diplomat is by no means the only person to hold this opinion. Many experts expect terrorists to return to Afghanistan in the case of a renewed seizure of power by the Taliban, and they expect these terrorists to plan and carry out attacks in the US, Europe and Asia. The terrorists could largely finance their own activities by the drug trade. So why are the USA's allies so hesitant, when their security is at risk? Neumann can't help but wonder.
So are the Germans cowards -- or are they just smart?
The man in the coffee shop of the new five-star Serena Hotel in Kabul is wearing the traditional Perahan wa Tonban -- a long shirt with harem pants made of soft, elegant-looking wool, and a tailor-made jacket. He's a member of parliament, from the south of Afghanistan and well informed about the situation there; he often makes appearances on television. But this time he prefers to remain anonymous: "The Taliban are a fact, and the West won't stop them," he says. "And only those who share power with them will be able to achieve security in Afghanistan."
Similarly sombre predictions can often be heard in political circles of the Afghan capital these days. Anything seems possible now that the Taliban have suddenly and surprisingly returned: An agreement could be made with the self-styled holy warriors, perhaps even with militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a wanted terrorist who is also a reputed veteran of the Afghan civil war. Hekmatyar has often switched sides and he's capricious.
So now there's talk of possible non-aggression pacts and about new elections because many claim that President Hamid Karzai is no longer sufficiently convincing as a political authority. Some whisper about the country breaking apart into a northern and a southern half. At this juncture, nothing seems impossible.
The speculation will have little basis in reality so long as the US continues to maintain its official position: namely that the Afghanistan mission is difficult, but can still be won as long as NATO provides the troops necessary for a decisive victory over the Taliban in the coming months.
The handsomely dressed member of parliament knows about guerrilla tactics and how to exhaust traditional armies. He once fought the Soviets as a mujahedeen or holy warrior. "How long will the Americans and the Europeans be able to take this?" he wonders, ordering a Black Forest Cake from the coffee shop's glass vitrine.
This too is part of the peculiarities characteristic of these wild days in Afghanistan: As war is once more being conducted, almost everything else continues as always -- life, everyday affairs and reconstruction too. Afghanistan is signing multi-million agreements with neighboring countries to ensure its electricity and gas supply. A high-security prison for terrorists is being built. Parliament is debating tax decisions and trade laws. An academy for generals is inaugurated festively -- and Black Forest Cake is for sale in the Serena Hotel, whose elegance makes it seem like a UFO in the center of Kabul.
So can Afghanistan be saved after all?
It's hard here to find a statement that will still hold true tomorrow. The analyses provided by experts change daily -- often according to the geographical location of the expert.
Take Colonel Stephen Williams, for example. He's stationed in the Panjvai district, 450 kilometers (280 miles) south of Kabul. His command post is located inside a tent in Pashmul, a town in a fertile valley near Kandahar, famous for its tasty grapes and melons. Canadian and US NATO soldiers have leveled a field and dubbed the camp "Camp Rugby."
Operation Medusa took place here in September -- a massive battle that also involved the British, the Dutch and Afghanis. Five Canadians died. The Taliban lost at least 500 fighters. The holy warriors almost succeeded in taking Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, and occupying the main road to Kabul and Herat. Williams, 46, led the allied troops to Pashmul and won the battle. The Taliban were defeated -- for the moment.
The colonel brimmed with optimism. He was convinced the holy warriors wouldn't attempt to return anytime too soon in the same classic formation. "They've got to be desperate," he said. Williams led people across the battlefield, showed them the shot-up school building that had served as a headquarters for the Taliban fighters, the irrigation canals for the fields, the hemp plants as tall as grown men and the clay bunkers behind which the Taliban had taken shelter. "If they try again, we will finish them."
But the colonel also understood that this war can't be won by bullets or rockets alone.
The international community ignored the strategically important Pashtun province in the south for five years. With the exception of some combative US soldiers who occasionally stormed the homes of suspicious people or dropped bombs from the sky, the inhabitants didn't get to see too much of the new democracy. The promised hospitals and streets were never built. No one created jobs for people to feed their families with. In the spring, international teams arrived to destroy the opium harvest. They threatened to rid the impoverished farmers of their livelihood. But the Taliban presented themselves as protectors of the Pashtuns, prompting many to switch sides out of sheer desperation.
Ever since ancient times, foreigners only ever came to Afghanistan as conquerors -- from Alexander the Great to the Mongols and the British right up to the Soviets. So it's no wonder that the Americans are now seen as enemies too. Now the Taliban are taking over one village after the other -- wherever the government is weak, wherever there is neither a police nor a judiciary or an administration. The Taliban are once again guarding the territory at night.
Colonel Williams says it's now a question of convincing the Afghans that NATO is serious about reconstruction and that it's strong enough to fight the Taliban. That's why NATO is now issuing statements every day in Afghanistan -- not just about its own losses and the enemies killed, but also about good deeds: NATO gives farmers tractors, NATO provides compensation to families whose homes have been accidentally bombed, NATO builds streets, NATO treats patients and distributes rice and beans before the onset of winter. Good NATO.
Traditionally, the Taliban are impoverished young men trained for jihad in Koran schools, where they arrived as refugees or village youths. True, the Taliban who died in Panjvai included farmers and day laborers who let themselves be hired for the war for $5 a day -- cannon fodder. But the others were "true believers," as the Americans call them. They were Islamic fundamentalists convinced of the righteousness of their own actions, ready to fight to the death.
This new war in Afghanistan has only been going on for a few months, but it's already clear that it will be an unusually cruel war. A British soldier describing a bloody incident in an e-mail to the British paper Sunday Mail offers a hint of just how cruel the conflict is: He compared his unit's failed effort to save French special troops to a "The scene was like a human abattoir."
The British had tried to save their hard-pressed allies by helicopter, but it was already too late: The French had been tied to the ground, and "gutted alive" by the Taliban. "That's the worst place I've ever been," British Lance Corporal Trevor Coult from the Royal Irish Regiment says about the little city of Sangin in Helmand, where he defended NATO positions for weeks.
Coult was in Iraq before he came to Afghanistan. He was awarded the prestigious Military Cross for his bravery. In Afghanistan this September, ever new waves of Taliban tried to storm his post -- by day and by night. It makes Baghdad look like "a walk in the park compared to here," Coult says after several sleepless nights.
The Afghans are now surrounded by battle fronts, and thousands of them are fleeing from the fighting. As they now return to their villages before the onset of winter, they often find their clay huts have been destroyed and their fields strewn with mines.
Kandahar, once the spiritual and operative center of the Taliban, has once more become a city of fear. Mohammed Jamaludin, a slim man with an embroidered red cap who sells cookies, shoelaces and batteries by the side of the road, fears an attack may be imminent every time an international military convoy passes his stand near Shahidan Chowk, the city's main roundabout.
Sure, he's angry at the Taliban, but he's just as angry at the Western allies. "No one is safe anymore," he says.
A mid-level Taliban leader in the Maruf district, just a few kilometers east of Kandahar, is about 40 years old. He's one of the organization's middle echelons and wears a black turban, the scarf of which hangs almost all the way down to his knees. His beard is very long. He carries his Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder as if it were a part of his clothing. "We go easy on those on our side, but the others have a hard time," he says. Half a dozen more armed men stand around him. No one here has the courage to take a stand against them.
So if the country's fate is being decided in the south, what are the Germans doing in the north?
"We're doing what we signed up to do," a high official in the new German headquarters in the provincial capital of Mazar-e-Sharif says somewhat defiantly. Up here, eight hours from Kabul by car, the soldiers are quite aggravated by the new debate over cowardice that's occuring inside NATO. In their view, they're carrying out their mission as planned. Nor has there been any official request for a military operation in the south so far.
Camp Marmal is located 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) east of the busy commercial city of Mazar-e-Sharif, famous for its gorgeous blue mosque, where Muhammad's son-in-law Ali Ibn Abi Talib is said to be buried. The camp is named after the Marmal mountains, which rise bluishly from the desert on the horizon. The giant military facility looks like a high-walled fortress, two kilometers by one kilometer (1.2 miles by 0.6 miles). It could provide an entire German town with water and electricity. It includes a hospital and a tree nursery where local vegetation is being cultivated for future planting in the barrack yard. Mazar-e-Sharif is the German military's largest construction site outside of Germany -- one expected to cost about €50 million ($65 million).
It's like a building designed to last an eternity.
It's from here that a German general commands five of NATO's reconstruction teams, including two German teams charged with protecting humanitarian organizations and coordinating German projects such as setting up a supply of clean water. The region between the northwesterly province of Faryab and the northeasterly Badakshan has an area of about 160,000 square kilometers (61,776 square miles) and borders on five countries: China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The Taliban positions are located far away from here. The holy warriors weren't able to fully conquer the north of Afghanistan even during their five-year rule. The Northern Alliance, a league of Tajik and Uzbek militias, fought bitterly against Mullah Omar's forces under its legendary commander Ahmed Shah Massud. And the Pashtun majority the Taliban has traditionally relied on doesn't play an important role in this region of the country.
The region is rightfully considered peaceful by comparison to the south. Still it's not unperilous, as the death of two employees of the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle in early October cruelly demonstrated. The two were shot at night while camping by a river in Baghlan province.
There's a degree of liberalness here thanks to the proximity of the former Soviet Union. Women can leave the house alone, and girls go to school. It has a slight semblance to normality, but more than this little bit isn't available here at the moment. Blackmail and kidnappings are everyday phenomena here. Ten-year-old girls are forced to marry in order for the family to get a good dowry or to settle an old blood feud between families. The police are corrupt and usually don't take action until they've been bribed to do so. Detainees seldom get a fair trial and have to be bought out of prison.
Important drug smuggling routes to Asia and Europe lead through the north of Afghanistan. The city of Kunduz, where the Germans have built a barracks facility almost as impressive as the one in Mazar-e-Sharif, is considered an important station in the international opium trade. The smaller German outpost in Faizabad is located in one of the world's poorest regions -- and in one of Afghanistan's major cultivation areas for opium poppy.
"It's probable that virtually all public offices with the exception of Governor Abdul Majid are integrated in the drug trade," states an internal report of the German Foreign Ministry on the struggle against the drug trade in Badakhshan. The shipments are "safeguarded" by top-level connections in Kabul. Whoever interferes with business must expect resistance. The German military vehicles patroling up here are shot at regularly. Home-made bombs explode in the streets, and rockets hit their camps.
Since August, soldiers from Germany's elite military force, the KSK (Kommando Spezialkräfte), have extended their support for headquarters in Kabul to also include the German military's three northern camps. The KSK troops are sometimes called "Woolcaps" in Camp Marmal because of their highly secretive manner and because they only appear wearing balaclavas back home in Germany.
The elite unit from the Black Forest has set up its command post in a separate location from that of the other German troops, in front of the tree nursery. The white tent surrounded by walls made from sandbags looks like a camp set up during a desert expedition. Inside the camp, the elite fighters buzz about on little four-wheeled motorcycles that resemble miniature tractors. Their job is to track down enemy forces and sites where bomb traps are built. They're also here to "bolster the morale" of the remaining troops -- especially since attacks and suicide bombings have recently been occuring in the north of Afghanistan as well. Despite their lack of a solid popular base here, the holy warriors are still working to destabilize the region.
At first glance, the activities of the German soldiers in Mazar-e-Sharif seems a little odd. Hardly any of the 1,380 German soldiers who have come to Camp Marmal so far have left the giant barracks to date. They keep the cafeteria running, take care of vehicles and logistics and stand guard -- not to forget cultivation of the nursery.
Soldiers patrol in vehicles outside -- mainly to secure the camp. They distribute schoolbooks and pens to children in the city, chat with merchants and passersby, smile and wave a lot. When the largest hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif burned down in September, they were there to help out with doctors, medication and tents.
The Germans are popular -- the macabre photos of German soldiers posing with skulls haven't changed that. They radiate a sense of security and won't hurt anyone -- not even the bad guys. Old warlords like Burhanuddin Rabbani, an influential Tajik leader in the drug province of Badakhshan, and the bloodthirsty Rashid Dostam, the powerful puppetmaster in the background, seem to have been tamed a bit thanks to international observers. The city is recovering economically.
Mazar-e-Sharif is booming. Construction and repair work is going on everywhere. Cars and horse-drawn carts make their way through the bazaar, where farmers sell fresh apples and tangerines. There's cheap make-up from China, men's suits from Tajikistan and colorful enamel houseware from Uzbekistan. Everything seems relatively peaceful.
The tasks within NATO -- a military allliance comprising 26 nations -- haven't been distributed fairly. But that's not the only thing that matters. The decisive question is what will become of Afghanistan. And there are good reasons for the Germans to insist on staying in the north of the country. Behind closed doors, during a secret meeting of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, the German ambassador to Kabul, Hans-Ulrich Seidt, warned of a war in the south that "could not be won" militarily. The diplomat knows the region well and believes NATO is facing the prospect of a "war of attrition."
Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Ailing people still die on their way to the next hospital, more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from their village. Drug barons, warlords and feudal lords continue to oppress the farmers like serfs, and another winter of hunger is imminent. But "democracy" is a curse word these days -- synonymous with corruption, prostitution and anarchy. The level of disappointment with the Western liberators is enormous.
The plan to wage war and then reconstruct was "fast and cheap," says Joanna Nathan, an expert from the International Crisis Group with reference to the West's strategy for Afghanistan. Since then everything has become slow, difficult and expensive. The Germans are just one cog in a larger machine. They don't want to be made to pay for the failures of others.
The Pashtun member of parliament in the Serena Hotel's coffee shop gathers up the last crumbs of his Black Forest Cake from his porcelain plate. He just recently returned from the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamic fundamentalists make their way from there into the country from safe hideouts. Could a greater number of NATO soldiers in the south really beat back the Taliban -- at least until the Afghan military is strong enough to defend itself, as US ambassador Neumann would like? And are there really no more than 4,000 militant enemy combatants, as NATO's allied commander for Europe, James Jones, estimates?
The gray-haired Pashtun is about 60 -- a sign of wealth in this country, where average life expectancy is 43. He's already witnessing his fourth war. In 1973 he witnessed the coup against the liberal King Zahir Shah. As a young man, he fought the Soviets in the mountains. Then came the civil war, the Taliban -- and now the Americans.
"So who are these Taliban?" he asks. They're a poor people's movement, he says, held together by Islam, which promises them paradise in death since it can't offer them a good life. This army of holy warriors -- whose size he estimates is closer to 40,000 than to 4,000 -- is the most powerful weapon wielded by the regional powers, the member of parliament believes. Religious faith is the least important thing involved, he says, pointing out that interpretations of the Koran are constantly adapted to suit the political circumstances -- as when it's a question of using drug money to finance weapons acquisitions. Islamic law normally classifies drugs as haram, or sinful.
So what is really at stake? The tribal leaders are fighting for hegemony in strategically important areas, just as they did decades and even centuries ago -- but they're also fighting over incredibly large profits from smuggling and the drug trade. And the people are trying to find out who has more to offer -- the international community or the Taliban.
Afghanistan is still what it always was: an instrument wielded by moderately powerful neighboring countries like Pakistan, but also by India and Iran. Now old and new superpowers like the US, Russia and China have joined the game.
President Hamid Karzai wants to organize a jirga or assembly before the end of the year, inviting all major tribal representatives and people of honor in the country. Karzai, who comes from the Popalzai, a Pashtun tribe, will then try to end the war and negotiate peace -- with the tribal elders, but also Hekmatyar, the militia leader, and the Taliban. There's simply no alternative.
What part will the foreigners play then, besides the usual one of being financial donors and advisors? In the end the Afghans themselves will have to sort out how their country is ruled.
And the Germans in the north? It may be a little cowardly to stay up there and radiate a feeling of security, dig a few waterholes, calm down a few of the warlords and cultivate trees.
But it may also just be smart.