Their missions are dangerous and covert. Details about German Special Forces operations are only revealed in the aftermath - if at all. And even then, not much information gets out.
"Minimal" - a word used quite often in German media on Wednesday (October 24) to describe how little information there is available regarding the Bundeswehr's (the German army) capture of a Taliban chief in Afghanistan. As early as Friday, October 19, there were reports about the capture which took place in Kunduz Province. Initially, the media got no information on the operation. It wasn't until a few days later that the daily "Bild Zeitung" reported the incident. According to the paper, the succefful operation had been carried out by the German army's special forces unit "Kommando Spezialkräfte," or KSK.
It is known that members of the Bundeswehr's elite unit are stationed in Afghanistan. But not much more than that; KSK operations tend to be clandestine and are thus kept under wraps. Hense the Bundeswehr's reservation in its official statement.
"There was an operation carried out in Kunduz province led by Afghan forces and accompanied by ISAF forces - among them the Bundeswehr," Lieutenant Colonel Manfred Baumgartner told DW. He could not confirm nor deny whether or not member of the KSK had been involved in the operation. The Bundeswehr has not revealed the identity of the Taliban chief.
"According to unconfirmed information from the Afghan authorities, the man is said to be Mullah Abdul Rahman," Baumgartner said. Abdul Rahman is well known. He is considered to be the behind-the-scenes governor and decision maker of the Taliban in Kunduz. He is also said to have organized the abduction of two fuel tankers in autumn of 2009, upon which German Colonel Georg Klein ordered an airstrike. Over 140 people were killed in the controversial attack. Most of the casualties were civilians. The incident caused an uproar in Germany and had a significant impact on German public opinion of the Bundeswehr's work in Afghanistan.
Kunduz and Kurnaz: KSK under fire
According to internal Bundeswehr documents which were made public for Kunduz investigation committee, KSK soldiers had supposedly been involved in the air raid on the night of September 3, 2009 as well. According to the papers, the chain of information and of command which led to the bombing came "predominantly" from a KSK command post.
Three years prior to that, the Bundeswehr's elite force had been under scrutiny for the so-called Kurnaz Affair. In 2006, a shadow was cast over the KSK - which up to that point had been virtually unknown to the public - when a German of Turkish descent Murat Kurnaz made serious allegations against the SKS.
Murat Kurnaz claimed to have been tortured by the KSK
At the end of 2001, Kurnaz had been arrested on the Pakistani-Afghan border as a terror suspect and was held prisoner for four years in the US prison base Guantanamo. Kurnaz claimed that before he was transported to Cuba, he had been interrogated and abused by German KSK soldiers in Afghanistan. An investigation committee in 2008 revealed that the allegations could not be confirmed. The incident, however, spread like wildfire through the German media, causing an uproar over the secrecy of KSK missions.
The Bundeswehr's special forces unit is a relatively new unit. In the 1990s, NATO exerted pressure on its partners to create capacities for so-called "out of area" missions - for operations in countries which are not NATO members. After the German Constitutional Court approved the creation of such a unit, the KSK was formed in 1996. It has around 1,100 fighters and had been deployed to Afghanistan, the Congo and also been used to track down war criminals in former Yugoslavia.
Gray areas of the law
One of the main tasks of the KSK are "operations against irregular forces" - like the arrest of the Taliban leader in Kunduz. The operations are usually carried out in small, well-trained teams which go in, complete the task quickly and immediately retreat. Aside from military awareness training, their highest priorities are the protection of German citizens and establishments outside of Germany as well as to complete rescue missions for soldiers and civilians. The operations are usually carried out covertly as to not disclose the identity of the soldiers and also to ensure the security of the missions.
The KSK are at home in the German town of Calw
When it comes to German constitutional law, the secrecy of the missions also has implications. The KSK has been operating within gray areas of German law for 16 years now. The German federal government has not laid open the KSK's concrete tasks or mission - not even to the parliament, despite the fact that it would be obliged to do so under a law passed in 2004 which states that the government must recognize the parliament's involvement. Only the top five representatives of the factions in the defense committee receive information - but only general information, and usually only in the aftermath of operations. And even they are not allowed to disclose any information to their own faction.