The war in Afghanistan now revolves around men like Khanzada Gul. The West is fighting for him, and so are German soldiers. They want to prevent people like Gul from changing sides and joining the enemy -- the Taliban.
Gul, who is dressed in jeans and a striped T-shirt, is leaning against a railing in front of the city of Kunduz's only ice cream parlor, which is on the same street as the main bazaar. The 26-year-old's face is clean-shaven and his hair hangs over his forehead in carefully gelled curls.
Until recently, Gul was earning a good living and could still afford the stylish casual jeans he is wearing. He was the security chief for an orphanage in Kunduz operated by a Korean aid organization.
But then, four weeks ago, Gul's life was turned upside down. As he was driving home to the village of Chawkandi, 20 minutes by car from downtown Kunduz, Gul was stopped by half a dozen men on motorcycles. They were members of the Taliban and warned him that they would kill if he didn't quit his job with the foreigners.
He recognized residents of his village among the group of Taliban, men his age and younger. A few days later, Gul was stopped again. This time the Taliban destroyed the music cassette in his car stereo. "This is your last chance," they said threateningly.
Gul was so afraid that he quit his job. But now he doesn't know what to do with himself, and he spends most of his time walking around aimlessly in the city. "Anyone who works for the foreigners is punished with death, and the same applies to those working for the government. How am I supposed to make a living?" he asks, shrugging his shoulders. "Maybe I'll join the Taliban soon."
An Afghan Spa
Part of the reason the Germans came to the northern Afghan province of Kunduz six years ago was to help men like Gul. They wanted to help the Afghan population rebuild their shattered country. The Taliban was far away, and the conditions were right for the mission.
At first, many soldiers nicknamed their base in northern Afghanistan "Bad Kunduz," a play on the names of German spa resorts like Bad Münstereifel or Bad Wimpfen ("Bad" being the German word for bath). The location, in a valley between spurs of the Hindu Kush mountain range, is unusually lush for Afghanistan. And it was a quiet place, back then at least, and the war was far away.
Today the region has turned into a battleground, and the Germans, who never wanted to get involved in combat, are in the thick of it. The Taliban have returned, and they are gaining more and more support among the local population. Gul could be the next to join them.
Ironically, it is in Kunduz, where the Germans set out to prove -- to themselves and to the rest of the world -- that the war against terror could also be conducted with peaceful means, that fierce battles are now being waged. The province has become a dangerous place for German soldiers.
The situation in northeastern Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically in the last two years. "We are involved in gun battles every other day. We are being shot at and we are shooting back, and we are killing a few of them," says Sergeant Major Wolfgang Marx, a spokesman for the German military, the Bundeswehr, in Kunduz.
German soldiers have also begun deploying heavier weapons. They go into battle in Marder ("marten") infantry fighting vehicles or request air support from the allied bombers thundering through the skies above Kunduz. The Bundeswehr must now come to terms with a fact that Germans have previously found difficult to accept: Winning the war in Afghanistan requires engaging in active combat.
The upcoming elections in Germany and Afghanistan serve as a new source of motivation for the enemies of Afghanistan's young democracy. This Thursday, an estimated 15 million registered Afghan voters will elect a new president, in a vote that will determine whether the incumbent, the pro-Western President Hamid Karzai, will remain in office for another five-year term.
The Taliban also have Germany's parliamentary election in mind as they seek to escalate the situation in Kunduz, the province where German troops are stationed. They hope that a rising death toll will rob the Bundeswehr of political support at home.
When Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a member of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), talks about Afghanistan, it usually sounds as if he were discussing a potential candidate for European Union membership. He consistently portrays the situation as everything but dramatic and paints the current mission as a success. But the situation on the ground in Kunduz tells a different story.
'I Would Crush Him with My Own Hands'
Abdul Razak Yakubi, the police chief in Kunduz, is feeling extremely upset on this particular morning. A suicide bomber has just blown himself up on the road heading south out of the city. Aside from the suicide bomber, no one was killed. But Razak, who is known in the region as "General Razak," knows that the incident will only spark the usual talk, namely that he doesn't have the city and the surrounding province under control. The problem is that the gossip is true.
Razak has stopped counting how often this year his mornings have begun with attacks. The brawny police chief, with his carefully parted hair, always seems slightly tired, yawning frequently and closing his eyes while on the telephone, as if he were about to doze off.
"If we ever caught one of the Taliban beforehand, I would crush him with my own hands," he says, clenching his fists. Razak is about to leave on a trip to Chahar Dara. It's the district where the Taliban are the strongest, a region of small villages over which the Afghan government and the Bundeswehr have lost control. Razak has lost more than two dozen police officers to booby traps and attacks in Chahar Dara in recent months.
Eight dark-green Ford Explorers pull up to the police station in Kunduz, each carrying six police officers armed with machine guns and a rocket launcher. Razak puts on his Ray-Ban sunglasses and his cap.
He gets into the third vehicle, holding his radio to his mouth. "Drive in the middle of the road," he shouts, "the bombs are always along the edge." He instructs the men at the rear to open fire on any car they see approaching the convoy at high speed. "Shooting first," says Razak, "often saves lives." He speaks from experience.
A Reign of Fear
The town of Chahar Dara is 20 minutes from Kunduz. The men at the market wear long beards and the traditional Afghan outfit: baggy trousers and a loose shirt. The few women out in public are dressed in burqas and are always accompanied by a man. To avoid possible punishment for engaging in "un-Islamic behavior," most citizens already abide by the dictates of the Taliban.
Within the past year, the Taliban here have grown in strength from a small group to a force to be reckoned with, imposing a reign of fear over entire communities. They are quick to discover which residents work for the government or foreign aid organizations. This has prompted local employees of international organizations to delete contact details from their mobile phones, travel in unmarked vehicles and leave any documents tying them to foreign organizations at home before traveling to the district.
Teachers who teach girls run the risk of having their noses and ears cut off. Sufi Mohammed, a farmer, was shot to death for drinking tea with foreign soldiers. The Taliban in Chahar Dara have announced that they will cut off all fingers stained with the indelible ink used to prevent multiple voting in the presidential election.
In the night before July 19, the Afghan army, together with police units and 300 German soldiers, launched operation "Adler" ("Eagle") in Chahar Dara. The combined force of 1,200 men drove the Taliban out of the town and conducted house-by-house searches.
But now the German troops are gone, and the Afghan army has also withdrawn. The Taliban are waiting in the surrounding area, planning their return.
Waiting for Attacks
"We do what we can," says Razak, getting out of his SUV. He maintains three small outposts in Chahar Dara district, each manned with 10 police officers and 10 soldiers. The men saddled with this dangerous job stand at attention in the scorching heat, on a small hill that rises above the surrounding rice fields, as they greet their commander. They are wearing sandals and ragged uniforms, and most of their weapons seem older than they are.
Mohammed Ibrahim, 40, the commander of one of the three small outposts, speaks quietly to prevent Razak from hearing him. "All we can do is wait for attacks," he says. "If we're lucky, we can defend our lives." He and his men have only one hope: to be relieved soon.
As improbable as it seems, Razak and his men are the hope of the West and of the Bundeswehr. The German soldiers will only withdraw from the Hindu Kush region once Afghan forces are strong enough to keep the Taliban under control.
But both the Afghan police and army are still a long way from being ready to take over from the Germans. In the last two years, the government in Kabul has slashed Razak's "tashkil," or personnel list. Some 500 police officers were sent to other regions of Afghanistan, forcing Razak and his men to abandon many areas in the Kunduz region, leaving them to the Taliban.
'German Mothers Will Have to Send More Coffins for Their Sons'
Mullah Salam, the leader of the Taliban in Kunduz, is the Germans' main adversary. Salam is about 40, has medium-length brown hair and usually wears a shiny embroidered cap on his head. He also has a large potbelly.
An intelligence photo depicts the Taliban member with an almost mild expression on his face, sitting cross-legged on a mat with a mobile telephone in his hand. However, to avoid being tracked he rarely makes calls and he travels in various disguises. Even in Kunduz, he never sleeps in the same house for two nights in a row.
For the Taliban, Kunduz is the strategic heart of the north. About 40 percent of the province's inhabitants are Pashtuns, the ethnic group from which the Taliban recruits most of its members. Fighters can go into hiding easily and are able to turn to old supporters in Kunduz. They are tightly organized into small units, which are activated for individual missions. The Germans are their preferred targets.
Salam's forces have fired rockets at the German camp in Kunduz many times. The Bundeswehr holds Salam responsible for the roadside bombs used against their convoys and for the murders of three German soldiers on the city's market square on May 19, 2007, and for all other subsequent attacks. Most recently, on June 23, three German soldiers drowned when their armored vehicle crashed into a water ditch after an attack. Further bloody attacks are planned to coincide with this week's election.
Salam's strong connections to the Taliban Shura council in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the insurgents' most senior decision-making body, make him a particularly insidious threat. Only this spring, Mullah Baradar, the second-in-command in the Taliban hierarchy next to Mullah Omar, who has gone almost completely underground, issued a decree code-named "Nusrat," or "The Victory." In the directive, Baradar ordered his commanders to ramp up their activities in northern Afghanistan, including Kunduz.
It is now up to Mullah Salam to implement Baradar's plan and make life a living hell for the Germans. "The Germans, together with the Afghan army, have not managed to gain the upper hand over our fighters," Qari Bashir, one of Salam's commanders, scoffs in a telephone conversation. "We have far fewer men, but we are more courageous. German mothers will have to send many more coffins to Afghanistan for their sons."
A Reputation for Being Cowards
Before May 19, 2007, the day on which a suicide bomber targeted and killed three Bundeswehr soldiers who were at the bazaar to buy refrigerators, the Germans felt exceedingly comfortable in Kunduz.
The soldiers had long joked about serving in what they called "Bad Kunduz," because nothing resembling war was happening there. German paratroopers drove out of their camp smiling and waving, met with the village elders, known as maliks, and drank large quantities of green tea. They also repaired bridges and dug wells.
This cozy prologue to the current situation is probably the reason that the Germans have a reputation among many Afghans for being cowards who shirk real combat. The governor of Kunduz, Mohammed Omar, shares that opinion.
Omar is sitting on a red floor cushion. He wears his dark-blonde beard shortly trimmed, and the shirt under his vest is freshly ironed. But his eyes are red from crying: His brother, a local police chief, was killed the night before.
The Taliban attacked his police station to free supporters being held there. The police chief and his bodyguard were killed, a police officer was seriously injured, and the Taliban supporters were freed. "We will find the culprits," the governor says quietly.
Mohammed Omar, known locally simply as Engineer Omar, has nothing good to say about the Bundeswehr soldiers today. In fact, he is deeply disappointed. He complains that the Germans are not willing to seriously challenge the Taliban. "The last operation against the Taliban in Chahar Dara was unsuccessful, because the soldiers were hardly prepared to stage air strikes. They are overly cautious, and they don't even get out of their vehicles. They should leave, and the Americans should replace them. The Americans would finally provide security."
Guests enter the governor's house to offer their condolences. They kiss Omar's hands, mumble a few words and sit down on the floor cushions without saying anything. "The anti-government resistance in Kunduz is controlled from Pakistan," says Omar. At first, he says, only a few local residents supported the movement, but in the run-up to the election, Pakistan's intelligence service has activated its sources in Kunduz. "What kind of a response do the Germans have to that?"
The governor is beginning to sound agitated. A man hands him an old photo of him and his brother. His eyes fill with tears. He excuses himself, saying that it is time for him to pray.
'If I Don't Shoot, They'll Kill My Soldiers'
"Sure, Kunduz has changed," says Colonel Georg Klein. He is sitting in his office at the reconstruction team headquarters in Kunduz, adjusting his glasses. Kunduz has also changed him, says Klein. "I really don't want to shoot at other people. They're people, too, after all. But if I don't shoot, they'll kill my soldiers." His words reflect the logic of the war.
Four soldiers have died since Klein became the commander of German forces in Kunduz. He is deeply troubled by the deaths, he says, but adds that it is now time to "look forward." The people of Kunduz deserve the Germans' help, he says, noting that they are proud and hardworking, and are making a genuine effort to get back on their feet.
Klein sips his tea. He knows that the coming years will be even more difficult than the past few years. He wants to see the peaceful conditions of the past return to the region, and yet he finds himself caught in the midst of the violence of the present.
He says that the Germans have already chalked up some successes in Afghanistan. Countless roads and bridges have been built in Kunduz, and 1,800 households now have access to clean water. In the troubled Chahar Dara district, says Klein, employees of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) have built a tomato paste factory, which now sells its entire production to Kabul's only five-star hotel, the Serena.
Germans, he says, have financed an auto repair academy and are helping beekeepers establish a livelihood. Why doesn't anyone mention these achievements, Klein asks?
Progress is the Germans' most powerful weapon, which is why the Taliban detest the reconstruction efforts. Afghans want electricity and roads but, most of all, they want to survive.
Bad for Business
The police patrol the streets by day, and the Taliban are in control at night, says Muallim Kabir, an elderly man with a long white beard and a mustard-colored turban. He is standing in a clothing shop in downtown Kunduz, examining a blue-green silk chapan coat.
Prices have dropped now that the security situation in Kunduz has deteriorated. Less security is bad for business. Instead of the 3,500 afghanis (about €50, or $71) the coat would normally cost, Kabir offers the shopkeeper 2,500 afghanis. In the end he buys the coat for 2,800 afghanis.
Kabir is a Pashtun and a member of several village councils. He says that he plans to bide his time to see who gains the upper hand -- the government and the foreign troops, or the Taliban. In the end, he says, he doesn't want to be on the side of the losers. In a country like Afghanistan, that's a dangerous place to be.