What Germany Left Behind: The Slow Collapse of North Afghanistan – part 1

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Nicola Abé, April 22, 2014 (Photo Gallery).

Six months ago, Germany’s military withdrew from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Since then, regional security has eroded and many of those left behind feel abandoned. Even development work seems to have come to a halt … //

… For 10 years, Germany was responsible for the province of Kunduz as part of its role in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It was the first real war the Bundeswehr, as Germany’s military is known, participated in, and Berlin’s aims were lofty indeed. German development experts were to help extend rights to women, democracy was to be fostered and the economy was to grow significantly. Billions of euros were made available — and the blood of German soldiers was spilled. Kunduz was a place of great sacrifice.

Until Oct. 6, 2013. On that day, Germany handed over the camp to Afghanistan.

‘Too Soon’:

  • “They ran away,” croaks the deputy police chief for the Kunduz province in his office and gestures dismissively. “They simply ran away. It was too soon.”
  • “It was too soon. It was like an escape.” One can hear almost exactly the same thing from the mouths of German soldiers, some of whom even compare the Bundeswehr’s departure with that of the Americans from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. “If there is one thing the Bundeswehr is really good at, it’s retreating,” is a sentiment that can often be heard in the government quarter in Berlin these days.
  • What, though, did the Germans really manage to accomplish in Kunduz and what did the 25 Germans killed in the region die for? What did all the money buy? What remains of the mission? Berlin would rather not provide an answer to these questions: A complete evaluation of the Afghanistan engagement is not on the agenda.
  • But there are answers to be found in the Kunduz Province itself. The closer one gets to the former German camp, the emptier the roads become. There are no trees to block one’s view of the far-away horizon; occasionally, a burned out car or oil drum lies on the shoulder of the road. The pizzeria once frequented by the Germans has closed its doors. A few uniformed soldiers are rolling out barbed wire at the camp’s entrance. “We are here to guard the buildings,” says Said Muyer, 25, of the Afghan police. He says he is essentially in charge, adding that the real commander hardly ever makes an appearance.
  • The road passes by empty guard houses and torn open sandbags on the way into a ghost town of broad roads, vacant barracks and open ground where helicopters once took off and landed. It seems like a settlement of aliens who stayed for a time but then left after realizing that the planet was inhospitable — despite the fitness studios, bars and the big German barbecue.
  • Some 2,000 soldiers were once stationed in the camp, but there are few relics of their presence among the ruins: an aluminum can that once contained processed meat, packages of “Exotic” drink mix and a few slices of whole-grain bread.
  • “They only left garbage behind,” says Muyer, kicking a container of potato goulash. “We don’t eat stuff like that.” He rattles the door leading into the mess hall, inside of which the tables and chairs are neatly stacked. “Everything is locked up,” he says. Muyer says that the refrigerators were already gone by the time he arrived, sold in the town market.

Escape to Germany: … //

… A Breather Between Firefights: … //

… In Berlin, politicians like to talk about the number of Afghan girls who are now able to attend school and how smoothly the elections went. “Normal life is possible along the main traffic arteries,” a German general recently intoned before journalists in Berlin. Not everything is bad in Afghanistan; that is the message. But security in the north is crumbling, a truth that even government reports have been forced to admit, and the situation looks even more fragile when one takes a closer look at the fleeting coalitions and peculiar people it depends on.

The men of Afghanistan’s local police forces, for example, provide something of a final bulwark in the fight against terrorism. The US military trained the poorly paid auxiliary policemen as a way of augmenting the regular police and military. The idea was to show a greater presence in rural areas where otherwise there would be nobody.

Today, the auxiliary police can be found in outposts that are only reachable on dirt roads; they often consist of little more than a few sandbags and mattresses thrown on the ground. The police are armed with Kalashnikovs and get around on motorcycles, and it is not a rarity for them to lose an eye or an arm — or their lives — in roadside detonations. Some commanders have even stopped leaving the safety of their own homes. Human rights organizations have accused local police units of extorting protection money from the populace or committing acts of violence. It is also said that local warlords have infiltrated the police units with their own militia. When one asks members of the police force in the district of Chahar Dara about their ties to the notorious warlord Mir Alam, for example, they remain silent.

(full text).

Part 2: Development Work? What Development Work?

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