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Kunduz - The end of Germany's peaceful army

The Afghanistan mission of the Bundeswehr, Germany's army, got off to a good start. But under the pressure of more and more Taliban attacks, the idea of the peaceful army faded away, says DW's Florian Weigand.

Looking through German media with the search word "Kunduz" will yield the same results every time: The attack on two oil trucks leaving 100 people dead, battles against the Taliban, 54 dead Bundeswehr soldiers, difficult – if not failed – partnering with Afghan security forces. "This is where the mission changed from drilling wells to combat," German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière said. To put it more drastically: The north of Afghanistan is where the Bundeswehr as a peaceful army lost its innocence.

Portrait of Florian Weigand. (Photo DW/Per Henriksen 25.03.2013)

Florian Weigand, head of DW's Dari/Pashto department

And all of it was off to such a good start, when the first advance unit arrived in Kunduz in the fall of 2003. A few properties were bought downtown and the area was temporarily secured with a wall and a few rolls of barbed wire. Local Afghan security guards took over the responsibility of guarding the camp. More wasn't necessary, or desired: The German soldiers came as friends, liberators and reconstruction workers. That's how the soldiers saw themselves and that's also how they were perceived by their Afghan neighbors. The situation was so calm that Kunduz was soon jokingly referred to as a spa resort.

First dead German soldiers since WWII

Starting in 2006, pressure on the Taliban increased in the south of Afghanistan and the insurgents moved to the quieter north. By that time, the Bundeswehr had moved to a new camp, a forbidding fort up on a hill above the town – and for good reason. The "Kunduz spa resort" would soon be history, Bundeswehr convoys were attacked and drawn into fights again and again. For the first time since World War II, German officials spoke of fallen soldiers. For the first time since 1945, German troops initiated attacks. That had disastrous consequences: The preventative bombing of two oil tankers in 2009 killed many civilians. The case is still being tried in German court today.

Those pictures did not play well with the German public at home. The Kunduz mission became the linchpin in, or even the symbol for, an emotional debate about the legitimacy and the sense of a German armed intervention abroad.

Social projects endangered

The indisputable successes of the last ten years have faded into the background. But the German presence in and around Kunduz also led to new streets and schools being built, and to the establishment of health centers, teacher training posts with up to 1,600 students and a tomato-canning-factory. Police were trained and craftsmen were supported. Hundreds of projects, large and small, were organized, some by development aid workers independent of the Bundeswehr, but all of them around the military camp. The camp in itself became a significant factor in the town's economy.

These projects are now in danger. Only extremely steadfast optimists will assume that the Afghan security forces can ensure peace and quiet without a problem. The German federal development aid organization GIZ announced that it would remain involved after the Bundeswehr withdrawal. But it will have to come to terms with the new balance of power, whatever that may be in the future.

The Taliban are growing stronger and already managed to take control of some districts around the provincial capital, Kunduz. After all, Kunduz is a highly symbolic place for the insurgents. It was the Taliban's stronghold in the north until the US-lead, post-911 intervention. If they regain control of it when the Bundeswehr is gone, it would be a powerful signal, further encouraging the extremists in Afghanistan.

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