The children in the photo, who look like they are aged between 10 and 12 and are wearing traditional bright white shirts, are standing there as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They are here because they are Muslims, because they are Uzbeks and because they admire the men in the middle of the photo. They, too, want to grow up to become fighters.
The photo was taken on July 11 of last year in the courtyard of their Koran school in the village of Aynul Majer, which is located west of Kunduz in the notorious Chahar Dara district, as a summit of sorts was taking place. The village is inhabited almost exclusively by Afghans of Uzbek origin. At precisely 6 p.m. on that warm summer evening, the men gathered here who would later kill Master Sergeant Nils Bruns, 35, Staff Corporal Robert Hartert, 25, and Senior Corporal Martin Augustyniak, 28 -- the three German soldiers who died in an ambush on Good Friday near the village of Isa Khel, not far from Kunduz.
This was a photo op for the terrorist leaders of the Kunduz region, who stood in a row in front of dozens of masked and heavily armed fighters. The photographs were intended to be propaganda shots, a demonstration of their newfound strength -- images designed to show that these men should be feared.
The photo was later sent to newspapers and news agencies, where it was printed and served its intended purpose, but today it tells an entirely different story: It reveals the face of the enemy of the Germans in Kunduz.
Highly Trained Killers
This enemy does not resemble most of the Taliban who, across the country, are predominantly Pashtuns. The fighters of Chahar Dara are backed and trained by non-Afghan religious warriors from former Soviet republics who provide them with top-notch military training and state-of-the-art weaponry.
The foreigners are primarily extremists from the neighboring country of Uzbekistan, but some also come from Tajikistan and Chechnya -- and they are highly trained professional killers. These men belong to the network of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is feared throughout Central Asia and supported by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.
Roughly at the center of the photo stands a man who calls himself Maulvi Ahmed. That's his nom de guerre -- his real name is Asadullah and he comes from the region of Kanam. Ahmed has short brown hair and a receding hairline. The 35-year-old is the new militia leader in Kunduz, having inherited his current position from the former shadow governor of the Taliban, Mullah Salam, who was arrested in Pakistan last February. Salam is thought to be behind nearly all of the deadly attacks launched against the Bundeswehr over the past few years -- and Ahmed was his loyal deputy.
The Taliban leader is holding a piece of cloth in front of his mouth and nose. He wants to avoid recognition -- the intelligence services are looking for him. The fourth man to his right in the photo is the prominent Taliban commander Shamsuddin from Chahar Dara, who is holding a cell phone in his hand.
To the left of Ahmed is a totally masked fighter who has slung his ammunition belt over his shoulder. Everyone in the photo surely knows the identity of this mysterious warrior: He is the highest-ranking Uzbek commander in the region. He leads the foreign fighters, teaches the local troops the military expertise that they lack and delivers money and weapons.
Equipped with the Latest Weapons
His soldiers are carrying short-barreled Kalashnikovs with modern plastic magazines -- the type of assault rifles that are normally only used by special forces. Their antitank rocket launchers are comparatively new, in contrast to the weapons that are normally fired in Afghanistan. For example, the TBG-7V thermobaric grenade -- a device that ruptures the enemy's lungs after detonation -- has only been on the market for about 10 years.
This type of high-tech weaponry can only be acquired with good international contacts and links to criminal networks abroad. Local Taliban normally don't have enough money to purchase such expensive armaments. But money doesn't appear to be an issue for the Uzbek forces, who are unwaveringly continuing to fight even though their supreme commander was killed last August by an American drone attack in the Pakistani region of South Waziristan. They receive generous donations from the Gulf States, who also supply them with the latest military equipment from army arsenals.
The German government has long been aware of the threat to their soldiers posed by this particularly powerful Taliban group. Nearly a year ago, in May 2009, high-ranking NATO representatives informed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's foreign affairs adviser Christoph Heusgen, along with the Chancellery's Group 22 task force which is responsible for military issues, of a "new quality" to the threat in Kunduz. They explicitly warned that Uzbek and Chechen extremists had joined local Taliban in order to intensify attacks against the Germans.
Posing for the Cameras
But to this day the German Defense Ministry has failed to find an adequate response to this challenge. Time and again, the Bundeswehr has said that it could control the situation. Even on the morning of April 3, the day after the deadly attack on its soldiers, the Bundeswehr Web site read: "A large number of the German forces are still securing and patrolling the area of operations." In actual fact, the Taliban had long since forced the Germans to retreat from the village of Isa Khel following an eight-hour firefight.
By contrast, on that morning Taliban militants were standing proudly in front of a burning Dingo, the Bundeswehr's most modern transport vehicle. One of the insurgents held up his new thermobaric antitank grenade for the camera. It was the same weapon brandished by the fighters in front of the Koran school in the Uzbek village of Aynul Majer. In fact, it was the same fighters.
The cause of the death of the German soldiers tragically resembles the circumstances under which up to 142 Afghans died on a bend in a river only a few kilometers south of Isa Khel on Sept. 4, 2009 in a controversial air strike that had been requested by German Colonel Georg Klein. Then, the main problem was a lack of sufficient reconnaissance systems, an issue that persists today. With additional drones and helicopter gunships equipped with high-tech sensors, officers at operation headquarters would have been able to extensively monitor the patrol area.
Apparently, the Taliban hastily organized their April 2 ambush and only deployed their men after they were informed by local spies of the Germans' presence. "We arrived in Isa Khel just as the soldiers were preparing their return trip," Taliban representative Qari Zabihullah from Chahar Dara told SPIEGEL.
The death of the three soldiers provides good reasons to fundamentally question the German mission in Afghanistan. Their orders on Good Friday were merely to clear explosive devices from the access roads to two checkpoints manned by German and Afghan troops, thereby ensuring that reinforcements could arrive there and retreat at any time. With their patchy presence in the crisis district of Chahar Dara, the Germans want to maintain at least the appearance of being in control. According to their mandate, Germany's soldiers are not responsible for the larger strategic objective, such as fighting the Taliban and their powerful allies from Uzbekistan.
The situation of all Western troops is made even more difficult by the fact that it is no longer clear whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is still even a reliable partner. Relations between the Afghan leader and his Western allies recently reached a new low when Karzai reportedly threatened to join the Taliban if his allies continued to put pressure on him.
The Americans leading the mission in Afghanistan are apparently not willing to wait until Berlin's politicians finally decide what their soldiers are actually supposed to achieve there. By this summer, the US will have deployed one of their brigade combat teams with up to 5,000 soldiers in the north of the country, and a second elite brigade could soon follow.
This means that an American will soon become deputy to the German general at Regional Command North in Masar-e-Sharif, which is also responsible for the reconstruction team in Kunduz. The American will, of course, take the lead.
Enayat Najafizada contributed to this report.