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."
Hearts and Minds
A few days earlier, Andritzky spoke with German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg at a barbecue in Mazar-i-Sharif, during a brief excursion into civilization for Andritzky. There is little evidence of the war at the Bundeswehr's largest base in Afghanistan, which has recycling services and even a carwash.
"Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans. It's idiotic. This war is nothing but a huge waste of money," one soldier said at the barbecue with Guttenberg. It was too much for Andritzky. The slim officer stood up in front of the defense minister and gave a small speech. "Mr. Minister, things aren't going as poorly in Afghanistan as everyone thinks. We've achieved quite a bit in the last few weeks. We live, eat and fight with the Afghans. They trust us. And they can see that we mean business."
On a hot day in early September, Andritzky was trying to build that trust on every street corner. He and a group of German soldiers patrolled the Highway Triangle in 14 armored vehicles. But the paths were so narrow that the convoy only moved at a crawl.
"And now wave, please," said Andritzky. Two boys pulled a cow with a rope around its neck across a field beside the path. Andritzky waved. The boys waved back. The captain pushed open the heavy door of his Dingo armored vehicle and handed one of the boys a pencil. The second boy looked at the German with a mixture of irritation and solicitation -- until he received a pencil, too.
The German soldier responsible for scouting nearby threats peered from the window through binoculars. "Everything that happens here, happens without warning," he said. A few hundred meters along, a small boy stood on a bridge, pointing a wooden toy gun at the Germans. Andritzky playfully threw his hands in the air, as if surrendering. "When we were kids, we always made a beeline for the shooting gallery at carnivals."
Andritzky is determined to see the good in people; he has a positive take on everything. His soldiers have a harder time. "It's a wooden gun today, but tomorrow it'll be made of metal," mumbled the scout under his breath. He pointed to another boy, about 10, who was giving the Germans the finger. Ten days earlier, American soldiers shot a boy in a rice paddy here after he pointed his Kalashnikov at them. He was about 14.
The convoy reached Shahabuddin. A man dressed in a black robe and a turban walked out to greet the convoy. Under his black beard, the man's face was so thin that it seemed to consist of nothing but skin and bones. "It's good that you're here," said the man, who called himself Commander Sher.
He reached for Andritzky's hand and pulled him across the dried-out furrows of a field in the shadow of three maple trees. Andritzky resisted the impulse to pull back his hand. Men in Afghanistan hold hands when they trust each other, and Sher trusted the German officer.
Andritzky refers to Sher as an APRP, an insurgent who has surrendered and is now participating in the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program. Sher was a fighter for the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of one of the largest insurgent groups, with ties to al-Qaida and Pakistani intelligence. "Sher and his men are holding the position in Shahabuddin," said Andritzky. "It's a pilot project."
A fellow soldier told Andritzky that none of these men are angels. Until recently, Sher and his men used brutal methods, including the threat of slicing off ears, noses and heads, to exact protection money from their victims.
"We have to put the past behind us," Andritzky told the soldier. He noted that a shura, or council, of village elders decided that the men are now permitted to fight against the Taliban in Shahabuddin. So far, said Andritzky, everything had gone well. "We're grasping at a straw," he said, "but we have to try." Andritzky had the guns of the Germans' new allies marked with yellow tape, "so that everyone can see that they are now the good guys."
The good guys were not pleased on this particular morning. They brought out mattresses and embroidered cushions for their guests, and their words were friendly, but their facial expressions were grim. "We need more weapons," said Sher. He sat cross-legged under the maple trees. When Sher's men surrendered two months ago, they had to relinquish their weapons. But the government did not return weapons to all of them. "If we don't have weapons, the Taliban will slit our throats," said Sher. Andritzky drove away from the meeting feeling overwhelmingly positive.
The Battle of Shahabuddin
Three weeks later the Taliban returned to Shahabuddin, and Andritzky -- speaking after the battle -- describes what happened next. About 60 Taliban fighters, with weapons at the ready and grenade launchers on their backs, attacked the village on foot. Andritzky rushed into the valley with his convoy. But the Taliban cut off their path, so Andritzky and his convoy came to a stop on a small dam, in front of the ruins of a bridge destroyed by the Taliban.
They took fire from all sides. Andritzky tore open the door of his armored Dingo and shouted, "Mortar fire on our position. Take cover." He knew a mortar shell could pierce the roof of his Dingo as if it were made of paper. Seconds later, a shell detonated 50 meters away with a tremendous blast. When a soldier with the regular Afghan army was hit and killed, the others fled, leaving the valley in their armored vehicles or on foot.
Andritzky's interpreter's telephone rang. "For heaven's sake, do something, so they don't capture us alive," one of Sher's fighters shouted into the phone. Andritzky could hear the desperation in his voice.
The engineers finally erected a bridge across the river. Andritzky advanced more deeply into the Highway Triangle. A B-1 bomber flew overhead at low altitude. Then the bombs started to fall.
At night, while the guns were silent, Andritzky tried to sleep. He curled up in his emergency sleeping bag next to his armored vehicle. It was a clear cold night with a temperature of 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit). His men reported that they were holed up in a mud hut near the maple trees, and that they had placed a red carpet on the roof so the bomber pilots would know their position.
Why did this have to happen now? Andritzky asked himself. Did the Afghans let him down, or did he let them down? Did he promise too much? Did he take advantage of their trust?
After three days, Andritzky recaptured Shahabuddin. The valley looked dead. There were no longer any children waving as they played in the ditches; there were no goats in the fields and no prayer rugs hanging out to dry. Sher and four of his men were dead. The Germans found their bodies near the maples.
'A Terrible Setback'
On a recent Thursday, the Taliban launches another attack on Shahabuddin. Once again, mortar shells fly through the air and the Germans are under fire. The Bundeswehr has not left the valley since the fighting began. About 100 men guard the temporary bridge, determined to prevent the Taliban from cutting them off again; but Captain Andritzky is no longer there.
A farmer approaches the men and shouts something. The Germans are nervous. They call for their interpreter. They want to establish trust. Then the farmer detonates the explosives in his vest. The explosion hurls steel bullets through the air, which penetrate the windows and doors of two Dingos. The blast perforates the eardrums of 14 soldiers. One soldier is killed in the explosion.
The Allies strike back with Hellfire missiles and bombs. Peace is not in sight for Shahabuddin.
"It was a terrible setback," says Andritzky. "But no matter how messed up the situation is, we can't give up hope, or else it will all have been for nothing."