Ready to fight: German soldiers’ Afghan mission shifts from reconstruction and training to engaging enemy
CHAR DARA, Afghanistan — The streets of the village had emptied and a small breeze pushed dust clouds along the main road, along the tall walls of the residential compounds and through the legs of camels waiting to be led inside.
Master Sgt. Andreas Kaitschik, leader of Bravo Platoon, 2nd Infantry Company of the German military’s Task Force Kunduz, stood in the center of the road, his shadow falling over a freshly dug hole.
“Two days ago we found two IEDs here,” Kaitschik said. Each contained 55 pounds of homemade explosives.
The bombs, wired to a detonator in a nearby field, had been laid carefully, in view of houses and shops. Kaitschik’s men had dug up the bombs, brought them into an empty field and detonated them. The shock wave shattered windows throughout the neighborhood.
“The people came out and said, ‘Oh, you broke my windows! You must pay!’ And we said, ‘No, the Taliban broke your windows. You can go thank them.’ ”
Kaitschik, a former sniper, said it calmly, without irony. It was an acknowledgement of a hard truth nearly everywhere in Afghanistan: 10 years into the war, many Afghans tolerate or aid insurgent groups, even here in the north, where the Taliban presence is said to be smaller and the war quieter.
Still, the Germans were mildly encouraged — they had been told of the bombs by a group of locals wary of the insurgents. German commanders saw this as a softening in a region where they have been struggling against a Taliban resurgence and hoped to exploit it.
So Kaitschik’s platoon provided security as a lieutenant colonel shook hands and talked with elders, making friends, fielding requests, inquiring after families and business, while everyone quietly ignored the freshness of the craters and problems they suggested.
“That’s how it is,” Kaitschik said.
From reconstruction to war
It has not always been this way.
When the German military took the lead in the nine provinces of RC-North in 2004, most of the territory was relatively quiet, especially compared to the south and east. In the north, where Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and other groups were dominant, Taliban influence fell sharply and remained weak after the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, and so German forces were able to concentrate on reconstruction efforts.
Then the insurgents returned. The beginning of their comeback isn’t easy to pinpoint, most military officers said. But while U.S. forces concentrated on their surge in the Iraq War in 2006, the Taliban and other groups regrouped, rearmed and began filtering back into spaces where the Afghan government had performed poorly or had never arrived. Because resources and power pooled around cities such as Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif, military officers said, insurgents had ample room to thread back into the region.
In those middle years of the war, German forces never numbered much more than 4,000, though they and small contingents of troops from other nations were responsible for stabilizing a territory nearly half the size of Germany itself. German troops were also hamstrung in responding to growing threats by their own rules, which dictated that they could only use force to defend themselves.
By 2007, German soldiers said attacks against them and Afghan forces were rising in the north, mostly with IEDs. By 2009, the Germans were seeing more bombs and more firefights; they also were involved in one of the war’s most notorious civilian mass casualties, ordering an airstrike against two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by insurgents — killing the insurgents, but also as many as 30 nearby civilians.
Then, last spring, a suicide bomber seriously injured the German general in charge of the north and killed the top Afghan police commander here.
To the American public, weary from war in Iraq and long familiar with troop deaths and civilian casualties, the slow increase of violence in the north was barely more than a footnote compared to heavier fighting in the south and east of Afghanistan.
For Germany, a country haunted by history — where every mission, every death, every mistake is measured against the legacy of World War II — the trend was alarming. Citizens became increasingly angry, and many demanded that Germany withdraw its troops. (In recent polls, up to 70 percent of Germans believe troops should be pulled out.)
But the politicians refused. While their constitution severely restricts use of the armed forces and so-called national caveats limit what German troops can do in Afghanistan, lawmakers nevertheless answered the increasing violence by changing rules and allowing soldiers to respond more aggressively. They also gradually boosted troop numbers in Afghanistan. Today, about 5,000 troops operate here, making Germany the third-largest contributor to the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
German soldiers, with help from U.S. forces, began knocking insurgents back near the cities of Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif. German officers are reluctant to use words that sound overly aggressive, but, according to one officer, Germans were finally able to borrow a phrase American soldiers had been using for years and “go looking for a fight.”
At home, German politicians treaded carefully around the growing violence and the mounting German death toll, which stands at 53, according to iCasualties.org. Many German leaders refuse to use the word “war.”
But the truth is plain. German forces came to Afghanistan to rebuild the country and train its civil servants, but in the last few years they have been fighting more and larger battles, and killing and dying in larger numbers than at any time since 1945.
“What happens here is totally new for the army,” said Capt. Marcel Boehnert, 32, the commander of 2nd Infantry Company. “This is a new generation of soldiers.”
Boehnert stood before a map in his small office at a small combat outpost beside the district center in Char Dara. He explained the strategic spot as a gateway to the capital, Kunduz, which is a staging area near the Uzbek border. That makes Char Dara important not only for ISAF supply lines, but also for drug smugglers and insurgents.
German forces had been able to rebuff insurgent advances in many northern areas — Mazar-e-Sharif was deemed safe enough earlier this year that security there was transferred to the Afghans — but it had not been easy. Last year, not far from Boehnert’s base, three German soldiers had been killed in action on the same day — “a lot for Germany.”
But Boehnert said German troops had expanded the security bubble in the area and had followed up military operations in Char Dara with reconstruction, bringing electricity and paved roads to areas that had neither.
Boehnert planned to enlarge the bubble further. This past autumn, his soldiers cleared IEDs from sun-baked roadways and conducted sweeps through dust-washed villages. They had found many IEDs, and once, over the summer, they had been in a firefight. It was brief; no one was injured. His troops had not fired since.
Part of the reason may lie with German tactics. The captain said his soldiers traveled in large numbers with heavy support whenever possible — movements that insurgents would be foolish to attack.
American commanders have sometimes criticized the Germans for this approach, and some experts regard the German army, still aligned toward a land war in Europe, as poorly suited to counterinsurgency. Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, encouraged the Germans in 2010 to take more risks.
Another officer, working elsewhere in the province, said, “The Germans, they just roll so deep, with so many vehicles and so much air support, that the bad guys can hear them coming. They just leave.”
German officers said their mission in Afghanistan was not to hunt bad guys but to rebuild the country, and their approach to counterinsurgency was bound to differ from that of U.S. forces.
“We do it carefully,” Boehnert said. “We take risks, but they are calculated.”
So far, the approach seemed to be working. Things were quieter than they had been for a long time, Boehnert said. The local district governor, Haji Abdul Momeen, agreed — though his brother, who had been district governor before him, had been killed by a suicide bomber in February.
“When you go out to the villages, you don’t see insurgents there anymore,” Momeen said. “We don’t know where they are, but things here are great.”
He welcomed the Germans’ development plans and joked that he would not let them leave, despite the German government’s plan to begin withdrawing troops next year.
Boehnert was pleased with the praise and with the work his new generation of troops had done.
Yet he, like many other soldiers, said it would be difficult to explain to the skeptical public back home, where the World War II experience colors feelings about war differently than in the United States or Great Britain. The ghosts linger, and soldiers sometimes experience the hostility Americans faced when they returned from the Vietnam War.
The captain then told a story about a visit he had made to New York City a few years earlier. He had traveled, in uniform and with other German soldiers, to the Empire State Building. Outside, they stepped into a long line and began waiting to enter. But when attendants at the entrance saw them, they thanked the men for their service, pulled them out of line and ushered them into the building as though they were VIPs.
It was a small gesture, common in the U.S., but Boehnert was stunned.
“In Germany, that kind of thing would never happen,” Boehnert said.
At dawn, the soldiers moved out through fields of okra and cotton, surrounding a house where an insurgent bomb-maker had recently been arrested. They believed another bomb-maker might have taken up residence in the same house, and they had come for him.
The raid had gone smoothly, but no bomber had been found. Within a courtyard, a group of Afghan men stood straight and still beside a large pile of freshly picked cotton, eyes fixed ahead as Capt. Tobias Herzog questioned them through a translator. Herzog had begun politely, but that was fading.
“OK, that was obviously a lie,” he said to one man. “We really should start being honest with each other. The people who were living here were responsible for the death of a German soldier.”
Herzog is a large man, his voice sharp. The Afghans admitted nothing and seemed to speak in half-truths or worse, each man telling a slightly different story.
“Maybe you just booked your ticket to Bagram and to prison,” Herzog said to one of them.
Along the outer walls, German troops stood guard. When Special Forces troops had raided the compound over the summer, they had found jugs filled with homemade explosives, the same kind Kaitschik’s soldiers had detonated a few days earlier.
This time, they found nothing. Herzog arrested no one.
Frustrated, he walked to a neighboring compound searching for more information. He knocked, and an old man emerged, looking worried. Mohammed Sarwar turned out to be a retired Afghan army general. He began complaining to Herzog about a problem that was, in some ways, more dangerous than IEDs.
Sarwar said local security forces, called arbakai, had recently confiscated part of his cotton crop, saying it was zakat, or Islamic tax.
The arbakai had done this to other villagers, Sarwar said, even though they had recently become salaried employees of the Afghan government. He warned that the people despised the arbakai for it.
In many areas of Afghanistan, NATO is experimenting with such security forces, trying to train and equip local men and form them into something like community police officers. The program has had mixed results. Often members receive little training and have little allegiance to the government. Often they are former insurgents.
German and American officers in the north expressed concern about the program, its loose guidelines, its sometimes seedy members with the potential to turn villagers against the government.
“Yeah, it’s a problem,” Herzog said. “Some people say, ‘You just installed legal Taliban.’ ”
Squeezing the tube
During longer patrols of their district, the soldiers of 2nd Infantry routinely spend nights camped in open fields. They circle their armored vehicles, like wagon trains once did while crossing the American west, and in the middle they pull out cots, set up tarps and cook over gas burners. Often there is coffee, sausage and homemade French fries.
After a long foot patrol in October, Bravo troop circled its trucks in a cotton field.
Gunners kept watch from trucks and small squads of soldiers patrolled the nearby terrain in shifts. The night would be cold. By 7:30, most soldiers were zipped into their sleeping bags. Soon they were slick with dew.
A tanker began talking of his two children, describing birthdays and other events he had never seen because of army deployments. His 6-year-old daughter had asked why he had to leave again, for Afghanistan.
“I told her, ‘I go to make things better for someone, so maybe they have a chance for a better life, so they can have some things like you have,’ ” he said. He was not sure he still believed it.
“Well, maybe in the beginning. But it’s hard to help someone who doesn’t want your help. I think they are just waiting for their chance to attack us.”
Many shared his opinion, and said they sensed at best an ambivalence from the Afghans.
The lack of violence also had been puzzling to the Germans. Boehnert admitted he didn’t know what insurgents were waiting for, and Kaitschik, the platoon leader, said insurgents had several advantages.
“They decide when to attack, and where and how,” Kaitschik said. “But after that, the advantage is ours.”
The next day, Boehnert received an intelligence report showing that his company’s work was paying off: Insurgents were moving out of Char Dara. According to one intercepted phone call that Boehnert described, a local insurgent leader had said, “Let’s go to Archi,” a nearby district. “There are fewer crusaders there.”
American officers in Archi confirmed this migration, with mixed feelings. They were happy that their allies were succeeding; on the other hand, bomb attacks in their territory were rising.
The insurgents had been squeezed away from one area and into another, like toothpaste in a tube.
But for Kaitschik and his comrades, the day ahead would be a mind-numbing slog spent clearing the most dangerous road in their territory called Route Cherry, where they had been attacked several times with IEDs.
Because they do not possess the truck-mounted route-clearance equipment that the U.S. military uses, the Germans clear roads on foot, by hand, sweeping with mine detectors and digging into suspicious lumps with axes and spades. It is dangerous and slow; explosive ordnance disposal teams can move only about 250 yards in an hour, the perfect pace for an ambush.
By midmorning, the four pairs of EOD soldiers were soaked with sweat. Kaitschik’s soldiers kept watch in the fields along the roadside and behind them a 26-truck convoy grumbled, unmoving, in the heat.
A soldier knelt and began hacking into the hard-packed earth with a small axe, the kind climbers use to haul themselves up sheets of ice in the mountains. Something lay hidden below. With tired, casual chops, the man dug straight in and straight down, sweat falling from his chin into the dust.
The EOD soldier sat up suddenly and swore. In his hand, a rusted horseshoe.
At the roadside, Kaitschik laughed. Another horseshoe. The soldiers of Bravo Platoon had placed bets on how many IEDs they would find along Route Cherry. Two, four, eight. The pot stood at more than $130. Only one soldier bet they would find none.
Kaitschik looked at the Afghan police who sat in the shade, doing nothing, no matter how many times he prodded them, no matter what the risk.
“I think we can’t stay here as long as they need us,” he said. “All we can do is give them a start. They must choose.”