The Battle of Shahabuddin Under Fire in Afghanistan's Baghlan Province
One German officer fights the Taliban alongside Afghan soldiers he can't always count on, risking his life for a peace few Germans believe is possible. Germans have seen the largest battles since World War II in Baghlan Province, and their leader is more optimistic than most about the war.
When Michael Andritzky talks about the battle of Shahabuddin, his voice is calm and unwavering. His most salient memory is of a moment of silence. After a B-1 bomber dropped its payload, he says, there was a loud explosion and the earth shook. Then it was quiet. Andritzky looked around, searching for the enemy between fruit trees and submerged rice fields. There was only a plume of smoke where a row of trees had been. "The enemy was destroyed," Andritzky thought.
That was in late September, and it was the most serious battle German soldiers have experienced since World War II. About 250 German and Afghan soldiers were under Andritzky's command. The firefights lasted four days, during which five Afghan soldiers, the Germans' most important allies in the region, lost their lives. One of the dead was a good friend of Andritzky's -- a man he used to hold hands with.
But the enemy wasn't destroyed. In fact, the Taliban struck back last Thursday, when a suicide bomber killed a German soldier, a 26-year-old staff sergeant from Seedorf in northern Germany, and wounded 14 others.
Andritzky is also calm when he talks about the recent attack. The soldier's death was a high price to pay, but things have to go on, he says. He remains optimistic. He has spent the last six months risking his life, and he is determined to make sure that it was worth it.
A Death Trap for the Bundeswehr
Last spring, on April 15, four Germans died in this province -- three of them ripped apart by a roadside bomb. A short time later, another convoy was ambushed and a rocket-propelled grenade killed a senior staff surgeon. Baghlan Province in northeastern Afghanistan has become a deathtrap for the German military, the Bundeswehr, and its allies. Eleven soldiers have died there in three battles during the last six months.
Andritzky has been back in Germany since Monday. In Afghanistan he commanded the second company of the Bundeswehr's Quick Reaction Force, which consisted of 126 soldiers, including mountain troopers from Bad Reichenhall and armored infantrymen from Oberviechtach, both in Bavaria. For six months Andritzky fought the insurgents in Baghlan, a Taliban stronghold. He never lost his optimism.
"This would be such a beautiful place if people weren't constantly shooting at us," says Andritzky. It's three weeks before the battle of Shahabuddin, and he's standing on a hill in a camouflage uniform, boots up to the ankles in dust. Like a proud explorer, he gazes across a green valley spread out in front of him like a lake, with the Baghlan River winding its way through fields of sunflowers, corn, rice and melons, and brown mountains rising on either side, silhouetted against a blue sky.
The Germans call the valley the "Highway Triangle." Two main roads, known as "Uranus" and "Pluto," intersect in the valley. Whoever controls these roads controls life in Afghanistan and the flow of weapons, water and gasoline. Shahabuddin is in the middle of the valley.
The hill where Andritzky stands is fairly unprotected. Army engineers have bulldozed a plateau into the clay soil. The place is now called Observation Post North, and there are a dozen tents pitched on the man-made plateau. A gravel wall protects against enemy fire in some spots. Because of the mountainous terrain, it is impossible to build a wall around the entire camp. It is Germany's most remote -- and dangerous -- outpost.
'We Can't Let the Afghans Down'
It is early evening, and the thermometer is still showing almost 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). "We were supposed to stay here for 10 days, and now we've been here for five months," says Andritzky. He lets his body collapse onto his cot, in a tent he shares with eight men. The dust, which is fine as flour, has settled on everything, from clothing to sleeping bags to toothbrushes. Only a small moist spot on the floorboards isn't covered with dust. Someone has just wiped away the blood of a mouse caught in one of the traps.
Andritzky showers under a trickle of water coming from a spigot attached to a water tank. Most of his meals come from aluminum packages, and his private life is limited to a five-minute telephone conversation with his girlfriend shortly before sundown. He would prefer to make the call later in the evening, when there is more time, but that's impossible. The Germans have driven the enemy out of the valley, but the Taliban still controls the mobile phone network -- and shuts it down at night.
But Andritzky, a soldier like his father, would never complain. He is a Catholic. In one of the pockets of his uniform he carries a small statue of St. Christopher from his mother, a rosary from his grandmother and a wooden angel from his girlfriend.
"I look the Afghans in the eyes every day. We have taken on a responsibility here," says Andritzky, who has grown a beard for the mission. The Afghans like it, he says. He wears a checkered scarf around his neck, a gift from an Afghan soldier. "We can't let the Afghans down, or else it'll all have been in vain."
- Part 1: Under Fire in Afghanistan's Baghlan Province
- Part 2: Hearts and Minds