On a Wednesday afternoon more than two weeks ago, Rudolf Blechschmidt thought he was about to die. Painstaking efforts to secure his release had just failed. One of his kidnappers faced him with a Kalashnikov rifle. Instead of the suitcase of money they had demanded, the kidnappers, hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan's Wardak province, received a message that must have shocked them: Afghan intelligence had torpedoed the deal the German crisis team had agreed with the kidnappers and had arrested the kidnappers' two messengers in Kabul.
The Pashtun standing in front of Blechschmidt was beside himself with rage. He loaded his assault rifle and pointed it at the German hostage.
Rudolf Blechschmidt, 62, owes his life to an Afghan doctor the kidnappers had summoned to their mountain hideout to examine their ailing hostage. Blechschmidt suffers from a heart condition and takes beta-blockers regularly. The 150 kilometers (93 miles) the group had traveled on foot since the abduction on July 18 had only made matters worse.
The doctor placed himself between the kidnapper and Blechschmidt, lifted his arms and asked the man to lower his rifle. After hesitating for a moment, the kidnapper complied, sparing the German engineer's life.
Blechschmidt was released in the middle of last week, but his freedom came at a high price. A German crisis team has agreed to a hostage exchange deal for the first time since 1975, when the "2nd of June Movement," a left-wing terrorist group, managed to secure the freedom of seven imprisoned activists in exchange for the then-chairman of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Peter Lorenz. Blechschmidt and five of his Afghan employees who had also been kidnapped were released in exchange for five of the gang's accomplices, plus several hundred thousand dollars in ransom.
A convoy accompanying the liberated engineer arrived at the German embassy in Kabul at about 7 p.m. local time last Wednesday. A German military doctor hooked Blechschmidt up to an IV to treat him for dehydration. By evening, Blechschmidt was eating pasta with German Ambassador Hans-Ulrich Seidt, and the next day he flew home to Germany.
A Success and a Setback
The release marks the end of an almost three-month ordeal for Blechschmidt, a civil engineer, but for the German government it represents both a success and a setback. The crisis team was able to save a German citizen's life; but by paying for it in money and prisoners it undermined the policy German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) frequently cites as a political mantra: "The German government will not let itself be blackmailed." Indeed, the word has surely gotten around, among other would-be kidnappers in Afghanistan, that Berlin does in fact let itself be blackmailed, at least in extreme situations.
The hostage crisis in Afghanistan has also dashed the German government's hopes that its crisis management team could this time act as mediator rather than as an ATM for kidnappers -- with an unlimited line of credit.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) and his deputy secretary, August Hanning, after agreeing to pay a ransom running into the millions to the men who had kidnapped Leipzig engineers Thomas Nitschke and René Bräunlich in Iraq, argued that the German government should no longer give in to the monetary demands of criminals, especially those who "can be expected to commit other serious crimes," as former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said in response to the Lorenz kidnapping. This time around, Berlin hoped that its negotiators could keep the ransom amount small enough so that perhaps the families of the hostages could secure their release.
Of course, the reality in Afghanistan was different. When another hostage, Rüdiger Dietrich, broke down and fell to the ground during a forced march into the mountains on July 20, the kidnappers sprayed him with bullets from their Kalashnikovs. As of that day both Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his crisis team were no longer dealing just with kidnappers, but with murderers. Now that Blechschmidt is free, German prosecutors are seeking to charge the kidnappers with Dietrich's murder.
But last week was about saving Blechschmidt's life. On Monday the kidnappers' leader, a man called Nissam Udin, had threatened to sell Blechschmidt to the Taliban in Helmand, a southern province where the Kabul government has lost all authority. Being handed over the Taliban could well have meant death for Blechschmidt.
The members of the crisis team knew that the kidnappers were beginning to see the German engineer as a burden. Their confidence in the German negotiators also plunged after the Afghan intelligence agency, NDS, intervened on a Wednesday three weeks earlier. It was on that day that "Mullah Nissam," as Udin is called, had sent two of his closest confidantes to Kabul -- his right-hand man Hassan Gul and a medical student from Kabul named Abdul Wali, who they called the "Doctor" and supposedly had close contacts with the Taliban.
The deal already in place consisted of two parts: Money would be paid to the messengers behind the high walls of the German embassy in Kabul, and a short time later Blechschmidt would be handed over to Red Cross officials in the mountains of Wardak. But the NDS decided to take matters into its own hands. A few weeks earlier it had arrested Nissam's father -- a typical Afghan approach to applying pressure to kidnappers. Then, on the Wednesday of the arranged transfer, NDS agents arrested Gul and the "Doctor" just as they were entering the embassy gates. When an accomplice told them about the NDS ambush in Kabul, the kidnappers dragged Blechschmidt from the Red Cross vehicle and roared off into the mountains again. The handover had failed. In a telephone conversation with his son Markus, 32, Blechschmidt later called the incident a "betrayal."
"I have purchased a herd of sheep"
Whether it was intentional or just a lack of professionalism, the incident encouraged the kidnappers to up the ante. In addition to ransom money, Nissam now demanded the release of his men from prison. Afghan intelligence was against the idea, arguing that Hassan Gul was a terrorist. The Afghan government was keen to avoid being seen as soft on hostage-takers. After the case of Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had promised US President George W. Bush that it would be the last time his government would negotiate with terrorists.
The situation came to a dramatic head last Tuesday when Nissam agreed to a new handover but refused to travel to Kabul. This time he wanted the crisis team to deliver both money and prisoners to his mountain hideout before he would release Blechschmidt.
It was a tough decision for Steinmeier. Could he trust the mullah not to take the money and disappear? Would Karzai and the Afghan intelligence agency cooperate and release Nissam's accomplices?
Karzai delayed on Tuesday and on Wednesday morning. It was already past the convoy's planned departure time at 8 a.m. German Ambassador Seidt had already made an unsuccessful appeal at the presidential palace. But when Steinmeier spoke with Karzai directly by telephone, the prison doors in Kabul were suddenly opened.
Later, the crisis team listened in by telephone as Nissam counted out the ransom money -- in $100 bills -- at his mountain hideout. "I have purchased a herd of sheep," the mullah later gloated, "and I will build a house for my family." For Blechschmidt, it meant the end of a drama that had begun on July 18, a Wednesday, in Wardak province, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Kabul.
Nothing Quite What It Seems
The German engineer had embarked on a morning trip to the Band-e-Sultan dam in the morning. There were cracks in the dam, and the Afghan energy ministry had hired Blechschmidt and his partner Rüdiger Dietrich to reinforce the structure with steel girders. The police chief in Wardak had said the area near the dam was safe. The two German engineers were traveling with an Afghan businessman and five employees from the region.
The Wardak police chief had provided them with seven police officers as an escort, but these men proved to be accomplices: While Blechschmidt was busy measuring the dam, the kidnappers descended from a nearby hill. The police officers welcomed them with open arms, handed over the Germans and their staff, and promptly disappeared.
This is how things work now in Afghanistan, in a country where nothing is what it seems -- especially government authority.
Rudolf Blechschmidt has built wells in Nigeria; he's worked in Jordan and, in the 1970s, in Saudi Arabia, where he did business with the bin Laden family. He says he once even met the young Osama bin Laden. In all those years, nothing happened to him. "He has a weakness for foreign countries," says his ex-wife Reinbard, "he was always completely committed to his work."
Blechschmidt has built warehouses and refrigeration buildings in Afghanistan. He tiled the new swimming pool at the German embassy in Kabul. He arrived in the country four years ago, and the crisis team's files also contained information about his business contacts in Kabul's underground scene. When he saw the kidnappers, the first thing that crossed Blechschmidt's mind was: "I've been sold." Two days after the abduction his son Markus -- who runs the Kabul construction company together with his father -- answered the phone and heard nothing but the voice of an Afghan man yelling, "Kill, kill!" The rest of the message was incoherent.
Blechschmidt later told his family that the kidnappers had treated him "decently." But for an average European, "decent treatment" at the hands of Afghans means a near-starvation diet. His daily meal consisted of one slice of bread, two raw onions and a slice of melon. Blechschmidt says he was once held for an entire week in a cave, almost completely in the dark.
Blechschmidt's guards smoked hashish and told their prisoner stories about a paradise where they would lie around on tables, served by dwarves carrying jugs of fine wine. When Blechschmidt asked the Pashtun men whether the dwarves were also Muslims (because only the faithful are granted entry into paradise), they were silent. The group, Blechschmidt later reported, was "completely fanaticized."
"Just like the USA"
To this day the crisis team believes that "Mullah Nissam" and his men are a group of local criminals who, as Pashtuns, are sympathetic to the Taliban, but are not part of the insurgents' command structure. This is how the crisis team justifies its decision to reach a deal with the gang. But what Blechschmidt reported after his release raises concerns about the situation in Afghanistan and red flags for German domestic policy.
It also provides a glimpse of just how far Germany's reputation has deteriorated in Afghanistan -- especially given the German parliament's decision last Friday to extend its military commitment in the region by an additional twelve months.
According to Blechschmidt, one recurring topic of discussion during the long evenings of his captivity was the use of Tornados, the German fighter jets that have been deployed as part of the international effort in Afghanistan since April. The kidnappers, Blechschmidt says, insisted that Germany had become an enemy, "just like the USA," and that Germans were partially responsible for the bombings of entire villages and civilian deaths.
Nissam's men talked a great deal about the Taliban, who they called the "owners" of Afghanistan, and about resisting the foreign occupiers. Their goal, they said, was to raise money, through armed robberies and kidnappings, so the Taliban could recapture Kabul in the spring of 2009.
This is the sort of rhetoric that has the German Foreign Office worried, because it heats up the debate over the purpose and consequences of German participation in the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mandate in Afghanistan. It also raises the question of how high the risks of future development projects with German involvement in Afghanistan can be. Blechschmidt says that as he was being released, the kidnappers called out to him that the Germans should "watch out."
The once heavy-set engineer lost 15 kilograms (33 pounds) during his three months of captivity. According to his doctors, though, Blechschmidt's cholesterol levels have actually improved, and he's far from afraid of Afghanistan. His son Markus held out in Kabul for six weeks after his father's abduction before deciding to dissolve the company; but Blechschmidt, over a beer with the German ambassador, said he could imagine going back, perhaps even to the more dangerous south. "There is still a lot left to do there," he said.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan