The Afghanistan of Abdul's dreams was a peaceful and stable country. It was a country whose citizens would not have to live in fear, and where parents could send their daughters to school. And it was a country with decent roads and hospitals. When Abdul* signed his employment contract with Germany, he believed that he would be helping to make this vision of Afghanistan a reality.
Now Abdul is sitting in a dusty café in Kabul, showing us photos of his time with the German military, the Bundeswehr. In one photo, the Afghan is posing with a hulking blonde German soldier who has placed his arm around him. Abdul drank his first beer in the Bundeswehr camp in Kunduz. "Bitte ein Bit," he says with a chuckle, quoting the advertising slogan of a well-known German brand of beer. He once bought a colorful layer cake for one of their birthdays. "They were my friends," says Abdul.
Now his German friends have gone home, and Abdul fears for his life. He is in the same position as many of the roughly 1,700 Afghan nationals who work or worked for Germany, either for the Bundeswehr or the country's interior ministry.
Islamists in the country see them as traitors for cooperating with foreigners. The Taliban has repeatedly declared that death awaits the "collaborators with the enemy." Many Afghan employees of NATO have already been murdered, while others could face grim prospects when their protectors leave.
The Western allies plan to withdraw their combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission officially comes to an end. Now that the gigantic military operation is winding down, local Afghan employees fear the revenge of their fellow Afghans more than ever. Germany benefited from its Afghan helpers for years, and now the Afghans are waiting for Germany to help them.
They were paid well for their work. Many translators received about €650 ($848) a month, or about 10 times the average Afghan income. They too could have recognized the risk they were taking. And they also have no compelling legal right to be rescued. In other words, what happens to them is mainly a question of morality.
"When the foreigners are gone, the Taliban will beat us to death like flies," says Abdul, 25. He stands out in the streets of Kabul, a clean-shaven young man surrounded by men in beards. He looks nervous as he walks past begging women hidden under their burqas, and men carrying Kalashnikovs. He is constantly looking around.
The first calls began about a year ago. When he answered his mobile phone, there would be silence at the other end of the line, and when he called the number back, the phone would already be switched off. The anonymous callers eventually began making threats. One of them said: "You help the infidels, you are a spy. You will die." Abdul threw away his SIM card. He went into hiding with relatives in Kabul a few months ago. He had to leave his wife and daughter behind in Kunduz.
Abdul worked for the Bundeswehr as an interpreter for more than two years. He was proud of his job at first, knowing that the foreigners had come to help the Afghans. He felt that he was part of the future of his wonderful country.
When Abdul went on patrols with the Germans, his legs would often tremble a little when he stepped out of the Dingo transport vehicles. He was part of the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) in Kunduz, a unit in which German advisors operate together with Afghan soldiers. OMLT soldiers were repeatedly ambushed by insurgents or hit with roadside bombs, and a few were killed. For weeks, Abdul camped with the Germans at outposts in Baghlan Province, a Taliban area. They slept on cots, surrounded by green ridges where they suspected the enemy was hiding.
"We were the ears and eyes of the Germans," he says. He remembers that they often went into villages together and spoke with the local elders. When one of the Germans said something unseemly, something that could antagonize people, he simply modified his translation a little.
He wore a uniform during these operations. "Now everyone there knows my face," he says.
'I Risked My Life for the Germans'
One of Abdul's duties was to gather information for the Bundeswehr, including information about friends and neighbors. He says that he once heard a soldier with the Afghan army stirring up anti-German sentiment among his fellow soldiers. Abdul initially reported the incident to the commander of the Afghans. But the officer wasn't interested, so he told his German supervisor instead. The Afghan soldier was questioned and transferred to a different location. He is now one of many whose revenge the interpreter fears.
"I risked my life for the Germans," he says.
He is disappointed that they don't want to help him. Other ISAF countries, like the United States, Canada and New Zealand, have set up generous programs for local personnel and their families. France decided to accept about 170 of its Afghan employees into the country.
But so far the German government has refused to implement a collective solution. An announcement from the Interior Ministry, which holds primary responsibility, states that Germany is "aware of its special responsibility for the local Afghan employees." But according to authorities in Berlin, emigration to Germany will only be considered if "there is evidence of a concrete danger to life and limb which differs significantly from the general threat potential in Afghanistan," which also can't be averted locally.
When Afghan employees have concerns, they take them to their duty station in Afghanistan. An "interagency task force" consisting of representatives from the Interior, Foreign and Defense Ministries, as well as the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, will then evaluate the information and review the "individual threat situation" on a case-by-case basis.
The German Defense Ministry has examined 11 cases to date, but in none of the cases did the examiners conclude that emigration was justified. The German ministries were unwilling to provide further details on their criteria.
"An extralegal, completely non-transparent procedure was established," says attorney Victor Pfaff, who represents a few Afghan employees for the special interest organization Pro Asyl. Pfaff argues that under Section 22 Subsection 11 of the German Residence Act, every foreigner has the right to apply for a German visa for "urgent humanitarian reasons," but that the Afghans are being denied this right. Instead, he says, the German government is forcing them into a special procedure, thereby practically denying them the possibility of taking legal action.
"The Moor has done his part, and now the Moor can go -- that's unacceptable," says Elke Hoff, defense policy spokeswoman for Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), who is addressing the issues surrounding the Afghan employees. "We need a contingent solution," says Green Party defense expert Omid Nouripour. "These people are under threat because they helped us," which results in a "moral obligation." Nouripour believes that the number of potential immigrants is manageable. After all, not every kitchen worker who helped the Germans will have to flee from the Taliban.
The German government offers two main arguments in defense of its high hurdles. First, says Berlin, it would be detrimental to the country's reconstruction if the Germans' employees, who are often well-trained, fled to Germany, which would also be contrary to the Afghan government's wishes. Second, the Germans point out that the security situation has improved.
'He Has to Disappear'
Asad's father disagrees. He is very concerned about his son, and he rails against the Germans, saying that it's time they finally took responsibility. There are roughly 20 pairs of shoes on the veranda of his small house in the city of Kunduz on this sunny Friday. His relatives have come to the house for a group prayer session. He has even invited a mullah, in the hope that he will help ward off disaster for the family. Asad, a freckled young man in a tracksuit, doesn't leave the house anymore. "He has to disappear from here," says the father, adding that prayer is the only thing he can do for his son.
Asad was exercising at the local health club a few weeks ago when his mobile phone rang. "Are you Asad, the translator?" the caller asked. "Come outside." Four armed men in a white Toyota Corolla were waiting there for Asad. Two got out and threatened him. "They grabbed me by the T-shirt and tried to pull me into the vehicle," says Asad. His fitness instructor and a few other young men came to his aid, and the men in the Toyota eventually gave up. He doesn't know who was behind the attempted kidnapping.
The way the Bundeswehr is currently dealing with its Afghan staff in Kunduz seems to be a lesson in how not to foster continued cooperation. The Germans have been slowly dismissing employees in recent months, and the interpreters feel especially abandoned. They are probably the group that is most at risk.
In anger and despair, some 35 men recently staged a demonstration outside the Bundeswehr camp in Kunduz. Two of them were eventually allowed to speak with the Germans, but they say that they were given little hope. In the end, they say, they signed annulment contracts and each of them collected two months' salary as a settlement payment. Now, the Afghans say they were told by the Germans, they will have to rely on the Afghan security forces. By last Friday, the Bundeswehr had not commented on the incident.
Some of the young Afghans have come to a hotel in Kunduz for a meeting. The mood is tense. "Didn't you say that you wouldn't leave until there was peace?" one of the Afghans asks the visitors from Germany. "You are withdrawing the entire apparatus from the country, but you're leaving us here," says another Afghan. "You fortify yourselves and claim the country is safe." According to the Afghans, the Bundeswehr built yet another new wall around its camp a few weeks ago -- would it do this if the soldiers no longer had anything to fear?
"We sold off our lives for a few thousand dollars," inveighs Farhad, an interpreter whom the group designated their spokesman. "If only I had worked for the Americans."
Now Farhad says he is afraid that the Taliban will overrun the country, and that he will end up in a mass grave. It is clear to him, he says, that he has to leave Afghanistan, illegally if necessary.
Tom Koenigs, a member of the Green Party and chairman of the human rights committee in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, goes so far as to demand that every Afghan employee be given the right to come to Germany. He calls the German authorities' behavior "bureaucratic and foolish." The Afghan employees are qualified and willing to integrate into German society, he argues, and they could even be a boon for Germany, which is already home to almost 57,000 Afghans.
A Dire Situation
In recent months, it has also become apparent how fragile the situation is in large parts of the country. Less than half a year after the Bundeswehr closed its first camp, in Badakhshan Province, it recently had to return there when Afghan government forces and Islamists became involved in heavy fighting. And the Taliban was gaining ground.
The number of attacks also remained constant. An average of five policemen are killed in Afghanistan every day. Only one of the 23 brigades in the Afghan National Army is even capable of seriously opposing insurgents without the help of NATO troops.
According to a recent report by the US Defense Department, the Taliban is "determined," "tough" and has "substantial regenerative powers." The report found that the Taliban controls districts in southern Afghanistan, while extensive corruption weakens the central government in Kabul. The Pentagon characterizes the plan to turn over responsibility for their own security to the Afghans by the end of 2014 as "a challenge."
"The Afghan army and the police have made progress," says Green Party politician Nouripour. "But they cannot protect a high-risk group in the long term." He doesn't think it's a good idea to resettle the Afghan employees within Afghanistan, or to place them in new jobs to help with reconstruction. "These people won't do anyone any good if they're dead."
Nouripour believes that a comprehensive acceptance program would collide with the whitewashing of the security situation. "The West's only objective in Afghanistan today is to withdraw quickly and without defeat." If Berlin were to admit that its own employees are no longer safe in the country, says Nouripour, it would be tantamount to losing face.
If the Germans don't want to gamble away the Afghans' trust, they should recognize reality and act accordingly, he says. "If we abandon the people who were on our side, it will become difficult in the coming months to solicit the support of the Afghans," says Nouripour. The goal now is to defend the Germans' credibility in the Hindu Kush region.
Abdul rarely ventures out to his home town of Khanabad in Kunduz Province, which is considered a breeding ground for the Taliban. He hardly ever sees his pregnant wife and their 9-month-old daughter. When he does visit, he does so surreptitiously, and he spends only a few hours in his family's house. He no longer dares to spend the night there. An explosive vest was recently found in a house a few blocks away, says Abdul. The neighbors berate his wife for loving a traitor.
Now that he has gone into hiding in Kabul, he says, he misses the way his daughter chortles when he sees her. "My life is getting poorer," he says. He can't afford to bring his family to Kabul, after having spent most of his salary from Germany for his wedding. He had invited a large number of guests, as is customary in Afghanistan.
But is he at least safe in the capital? He doesn't think so, says Abdul, because the Taliban has spies everywhere.
On a recent evening, Abdul sat drinking a glass of tea when his mobile phone, the one with the new SIM card, began to ring. When he answered, the person at the other end was silent. Abdul called back the number, but the phone had already been switched off.
*The full names of the Afghans have been withheld to protect their safety.