Seen from the air, downtown Kunduz looks like a large board game, a series of symmetrically interlocking rectangles and streets intersecting at precise right angles.
But this aerial image is merely an illusion of a perfect order. In reality, life is anything but orderly in this northern Afghan city, where German soldiers have been stationed for the past five years. No one is more aware of this than Mohammed Sharif, a general with the Afghan intelligence agency. When he greets a visitor in his office, sitting in a large velour armchair, Sharif is barefoot, his shirt unbuttoned down to his chest. His skin is deeply tanned and his head is covered with a thick mat of hair. Fans help keep the room cool on this hot, late summer day.
Sharif is 48 years old. Most Afghan men of his generation have either died in combat or have survived and secured influential positions. As a member of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the general is in charge of operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in northern Afghanistan.
The news broadcasts on the television set in Sharif's office are almost routine by now: aerial bombardment in the south claims civilian casualties, an entire village is reduced to rubble in the west, and now the Americans and the government of President Hamid Karzai are arguing over whether seven or 90 Afghan civilians died in the incident. A master sergeant from the southwestern German city of Zweibrücken died when his patrol vehicle hit an explosive device set by the Taliban. And German soldiers at a checkpoint killed three civilians: a woman and two children.
This is daily life in Afghanistan -- and for Sharif. Unfortunately, as he points out. The general sighs and says: "Kunduz is the frontline in the north, once again."
Kunduz, of all places, is where the Germans and the rest of the world had hoped to prove that the war against terrorism could also be waged with peaceful means. It is a place where German soldiers could have been mistaken for aid workers, if it weren't for their weapons -- where men in camouflage built schools, delivered supplies to hospitals and dug wells, while their NATO allies in the country's south and west waged a brutal and costly war.
Those allies whose troops were stationed in Kunduz managed to avoid the deadly W word -- W as in War -- or so it seemed. The coalition governments in Germany, under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and now under Chancellor Angela Merkel, had various terms for what the Bundeswehr was doing in Afghanistan, calling it "networked security," a "civilian-military approach," "stabilization" and "reconstruction assistance." But the W word was one they preferred not to use. Two-thirds of German citizens are opposed to the Bundeswehr's Afghanistan mission, and politicians in Berlin read opinion polls more often than reports on the military situation.
But now, after the death of a young German paratrooper at the end of August and the first civilian casualties at the hands of German soldiers a few days later, Bernhard Gertz, the chairman of the German Armed Forces Federation, has finally uttered the unmentionable word. Last week, Gertz, a colonel, said that the mission in Afghanistan was nothing other than a "war against a fanatical enemy willing to do anything." The dead soldier did not merely "lose his life," as Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said at the memorial service, but "gave his life for Germany," as Gertz said.
"Are we at war here?" a reporter asked the defense minister in Kabul the next day, to which an exasperated Jung replied: "We are fighting terrorism, but we are not at war." Only seconds later, his host corrected him in front of live cameras. War? "Yes, we are waging a war," said David McKiernan, the American four-star general commanding the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF).
Meanwhile, the usual suspects were making themselves heard in Berlin. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a foreign policy expert with the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), warned against an overly "simplistic choice of words," while his fellow party member Christian Schmidt, a parliamentary state secretary to the defense minister, cautioned Germans to "be very restrained when talking about pathos in our country." The Bundeswehr, Schmidt said, is not at war, but involved in a "robust peacekeeping mission."
For members of the Left Party's parliamentary group, as well as a few Green Party members like Hans-Christian Ströbele and Winfried Hermann, who have always been against Germany's involvement in Afghanistan, demanded as they always do the withdrawal of German troops. Meanwhile, Green Party members Jürgen Trittin and defense expert Winfried Nachtwei defended the German mission in Afghanistan, insisting that there is currently "no alternative" to the Bundeswehr's presence in the country.
In early October, the cabinet in Berlin plans to approve a new mandate that would increase the number of German troops in Afghanistan from 3,500 to 4,500, including the men who will be monitoring Afghan airspace on board NATO's AWACS aircraft. But the debate over the value of the mission -- or lack thereof -- has been oddly muted. The German daily Die Zeit concludes: "An astonishing commonality unites opponents and supporters. Both are dangerously uninterested in the conflict."
This indifference stands in stark contrast to the dramatic deterioration in Afghanistan in recent months, which has gone largely unnoticed by the German public. In May, for the first time, more Western soldiers died in this large country straddling the Hindu Kush Mountains than in Iraq. While the situation in and around Baghdad slowly seems to be stabilizing, it is spinning out of control in Afghanistan. Forty-seven soldiers fighting for the Western alliance died and 238 were wounded there in August alone.
According to a report prepared for the US defense secretary, the Americans plan to send up to 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by 2011. A combat unit of 2,500 men, possibly even a brigade of 4,000 men, will be deployed this year to increase troop strength in the embattled eastern part of the country.
Last Thursday, NATO's supreme allied commander briefed the NATO Council about an important change in the military command structure in Afghanistan. In a month, ISAF Commander David McKiernan will also assume the command of all other US forces in Afghanistan, including the troops deployed in fighting terrorism as part of Operating Enduring Freedom (OEF). This will essentially eliminate the separation between ISAF and OEF.
The situation is extremely tense, as evidenced by the fact that more than 4,000 Western and Afghan troops were needed last week to move a giant turbine less than 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Kandahar to the embattled Helmand Province, where it will be installed in a new hydroelectric power plant. Despite the helicopters, armored vehicles and fighter jets defending it, the Taliban repeatedly attacked the convoy. Unconfirmed reports suggested that 250 insurgents may have died in the attacks.
Slowly but surely, the war is creeping into the north, where things had been relatively calm until now. Since 200 German paratroopers were transferred to Kunduz last spring, the Bundeswehr has significantly strengthened its presence -- to the irritation of the Islamist fundamentalists with the Taliban. But "normal businesspeople, namely drug dealers, also find the checkpoints and military presence extremely disruptive," says a representative of Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) in Kabul.
The criminal element of the insurgency could explain the timing of the escalation. The opium harvest is now complete and the raw opium, a brown paste, has been refined into heroin. Although the Bundeswehr does not take any action against opium farming, it does repeatedly block the opium trade routes to the north, conduits through which the drugs eventually reach Europe. This, concludes the BKA's analysis, explains why the situation is so delicate. Drug barons are apparently hiring the Taliban and ordinary criminals to attack the Bundeswehr, or providing funding to the insurgents. "It is a vicious circle of violence," say BKA officials.
Kunduz is once again the Taliban's operational center in the north. About one-third of residents are Pashtuns from the Ghilzai tribe, originally from the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where the Taliban enjoys strong support. The extremists use family ties to develop local contacts and find shelter. The Taliban already launched into brutal attack mode last year, when a suicide bomber killed three German soldiers and five Afghans in a crowded Kunduz market.
Sharif, the intelligence general, is a Tajik from an affluent clan in neighboring Takhar Province. Compared to this world of Taliban commanders, warlords and corrupt government officials, Sharif is considered a man of integrity. He occasionally explains Afghanistan's dark side to German military officials.
Sharif says that he even knows the names of those who have killed German soldiers, including who was responsible for the death of the most recent victim, the 29-year-old paratrooper. "Pakistani intelligence backs a small group of local Taliban fighters in the village of Omar Khel," says Sharif. "They did it."
'Holy War against the Germans in Kunduz'
Kunduz, an old market town and trading hub, has been the scene of bloody atrocities again and again in the last few decades. Hatred is deep-seated, and memories are long. When they recaptured the city in November 2001, Northern Alliance troops killed thousands of members of the Pashtun Taliban, even though the religious warriors had already surrendered. Instead of treating the Taliban fighters like prisoners of war, the Northern Alliance locked them in containers, where they suffocated or died of thirst. For their part, the Taliban killed thousands of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks when they took over the country in the mid-1990s.
If there is one man who fuels this animosity more than anyone else, it is Mullah Salam from the Imam Sahib district. As the radical Islamic extremists' military chief for north-eastern Afghanistan, Salam's influence within the region under German ISAF command extends well beyond Kunduz Province to Baghlan and Takhar and the region bordering Tajikistan. He is blamed for the murder of the three German soldiers in a Kunduz market on May 19, 2007, as well as a suicide bombing on Aug. 6 in Pul-i-Khumri, in which two German soldiers were severely burned. He is also believed to be responsible for many of the nighttime rocket attacks on the German base in Kunduz.
Few people have ever seen the man. He is believed to be around 40 and unusually corpulent for an Afghan, and he wears a beard that he keeps shaved below the cheeks. It is said that Salam never sleeps more than one night in the same house, and that he never stays in the same place for more than a few hours. He pays bomb-makers and recruits like-minded people to harbor suicide bombers in their homes. He is often in Pakistan, presumably in the city of Quetta in Baluchistan, where the Taliban is believed to have its headquarters.
The Afghan intelligence agency has been on Salam's tail for months, and he is also at the top of the Germans' most-wanted list. In May, the German Special Forces Commando (KSK) failed in an attempt to arrest Salam in Kunduz.
The unit, which is being deployed under the ISAF mandate, had received a tip that coincided with the results of electronic surveillance. On the day before the actual operation, KSK "hit teams" were approaching the complex of buildings where Salam was believed to be located. But the Taliban commander had apparently been warned and had already escaped by the time the Germans moved in.
Last week, Salam agreed to a telephone interview with SPIEGEL in Pakistan. All attacks "in the holy war against German soldiers in Kunduz," Salam claimed, were being conducted under the "direct command" of the notorious Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. "Anyone who occupies our country on behalf of the Americans," Salam continued, "must be killed, whether they are Germans, Turks or from any other nation. The Germans are the main aggressors in the north and have stooped to being America's paid puppets."
According to Salam, people have had "enough of the occupiers, and everyone hates their culture." He left no doubts as to the Taliban's ultimate objective: "We will exact revenge for every innocent Afghan killed, and we will continue the holy war until we have driven the Germans out of Kunduz and all other occupiers out of Afghanistan."
Salam's fighters are already the de facto rulers of entire districts in Kunduz Province. Earlier this year, a group of armed Taliban turned up on a field near Chahar Darreh, west of Kunduz, and asked the farmers which of them was Sufi Mohammed. One of the men raised his hand. The Taliban led him away and shot him with their Kalashnikovs. He had apparently drunk tea with foreigners. The killers left a note on the body that read: "Spy of the infidels. This is what will happen to all of you." Since then, hardly anyone within the local populace dares to cooperate openly with the Bundeswehr anymore.
Attacks on German patrols have become so common that most incidents are hardly even noticed in Germany. A convoy of paratroopers was attacked in late March. In early April, a suicide bomber threw himself between two patrol vehicles, but the soldiers escaped unharmed. In late June, insurgents detonated a roadside bomb just as two Fennek reconnaissance vehicles were driving across a drainage ditch, and then opened fire with bazookas. Three German soldiers suffered cuts and lacerations.
When asked about a suicide bomber who attacked a patrol last Monday, Salam told SPIEGEL proudly: "The martyr, Samiullah, is from Kunduz and is a great hero."
Like Samiullah, Rahmad Khan is one of the men supposedly prepared to give his life for the "holy war." He wanted to commit suicide for jihad, says Khan, a 30-year-old with a long, dark beard. But only minutes before the charges hidden in his explosive vest were set to go off, he was overpowered by a special unit from the Afghan intelligence agency NDS.
Now Khan, a Pakistani from Duawa, a village near the city of Peshawar, sits in the NDS prison in Kabul. The interrogation room is secured with iron bars, and during a recent visit, Khan's movements seemed lethargic and his gaze was almost transfixed. His mind was also sluggish and he seemed barely capable of following the conversation.
He can neither read nor write, and his only family consists of his elderly, blind mother. In return for his work as a shepherd and day laborer, his employer paid him one loaf of bread a day, and sometimes some rice and beans, but no money. "It just wasn't enough," he says.
Khan looked for work and met a man who took him to a place near the border with Afghanistan, where he was introduced to an Afghan mullah. The mullah talked a lot about jihad and fighting the American infidels. He gave Khan food and pills that improved his mood, and bought him new clothes. "He was very good to me," says Khan.
According to Khan, the mullah convinced him that it would be best for him to gloriously end his life as a devout Muslim by becoming a martyr. "He said to me: 'Look, you have nothing and no one, and you are nothing. What is to become of you? But paradise waits for you there.'" Of course he was afraid, says Khan, but the mullah gave him the pills to overcome his fear, and he gave in eventually.
The suicide bomber is the final link in a complex network connected, through regional commanders, to advisors surrounding the one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar, as well as to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Western troops attempt to buy off minor players to kill those higher up in targeted operations. NATO is currently working off a list of senior members of the Taliban prepared by intelligence agencies, legal advisors and ISAF Commander McKiernan. More than 150 so-called "high value targets" have already been "neutralized" -- which usually means "killed."
Three senior Taliban leaders are on the target list assigned to the Germans in northern Afghanistan. One of them is Mullah Salam. If men like him were eliminated, Western forces could at least be somewhat assured of being safe against new attacks until the Taliban leadership found replacements. But this could take months, say experts.
So far, however, the KSK has not managed to capture any of the high value targets. In March, the so-called Baghlan bomber, Mullah Younus, eluded the elite German unit during an operation near Pul-i-Khumri. Younus is believed to have been behind a devastating, November 2007 attack on a sugar plant in Baghlan, in which 79 people died, including dozens of children, members of parliament and politicians.
Unlike the British and the Americans, the Germans have hesitated to request armed drones or combat aircraft to kill such terrorists. The Germans do not want war, and yet the war came to them some time ago.
"Anyone who hopes to bring peace to Afghanistan," says Sharif, the Afghan intelligence general, "can learn from the Tajiks, who quickly stabilized their country in 1997, after a five-year civil war." At the time, says Sharif, the new country's new rulers prepared long lists of war criminals, and then sent masked gangs around the country. "They arrested the criminals, placed handcuffs on their arms and legs and threw them into the big Amu Darya, the river that forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan."
The Germans simply do not always understand how to set priorities, says the general, with a touch of indulgence for his mild-mannered Western allies in his voice. "Sometimes there are only ugly solutions."
By Konstantin von Hammerstein, Susanne Koelbl, Alexander Szandar and Sami Yousafzai
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan