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Balancing Military and Civilian Missions in Afghanistan

Sandra Petersmann (dsl)January 3, 2004

Two-hundred fifty soldiers from Germany’s Bundeswehr are stationed in the dusty brick city of Kunduz. But the purpose of the troops’ presence there is the subject of considerable debate.

Bundeswehr soldier on patrol in KunduzImage: AP

Major Michael Erben is one of the most important soldiers in the German contingent in Kunduz. The 37-year-old father is the coordinator between the German army, the Bundeswehr, and all of the civilian workers who either are or want to be working on the German regional reconstruction team in Afghanistan.

"That can be difficult for us, of course, because the purpose of our mission is to provide secure surroundings for civilian organizations," he told Deutsche Welle. "But in my opinion, our first priority is to help create better living conditions for the people" of Afghanistan.

The Bundeswehr’s expanded mandate now includes, in addition to Kabul, the four northeastern provinces -- Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan -- a relatively peaceful area that has suffered from considerable war damage. "If we are successful in creating and stabilizing peace through tangible reconstruction, then that will not only be good for Afghanistan and President Hamid Karsai, but also for us," Erben said. He said the Bundeswehr nevertheless has the ability to do something for the people -- and that would also be something positive for Germany.

The Bundeswehr vs. warlords

Aid organizations that have already been in the region for some time listen to these arguments with considerable skepticism. Volker Rath from the Cologne-based Cap Anamur, an aid agency that specializes in providing medical care and construction in crisis regions, said he suspects the German government acted too hastily and sent troops into a drug stronghold area without a coherent mission. "Up here in the mountains, the local warlords manage everything among themselves" and Kabul and Karsai are far away, he warned. "And anyone who comes here seeking to change something without having an alternative plan for what they’d like to change is going to have problems."

Aid workers from German Agro Action have also been moving freely within northern Afghanistan for more than a year now without problems. But now workers are concerned that they’ll be put in greater danger because of the Bundeswehr's presence. "German Agro Action has taken a clear stance: We’re independent, non-partisan, and we’re here to alleviate the population’s emergency," said Hanife Kurt, an Agro Action worker. "We believe that military should not be used to pursue political goals. For that reason we support a strict division between military and civilian tasks."

Emergency aid

But others have greeted the Bundeswehr’s presence, entrusting it with a positive and constructive role. Almut Wieland-Karimi is one. Her main job is as a representative for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a foundation aligned with Germany’s Social Democratic Party. But as a volunteer, she’s a core member of the team at the Mediothek für Afghanistan, a German organization that constructed a secure building where public discussions and forums can be held. Wieland-Karimi says she sees the soldiers as actors at the same level as local rulers, and she believes the Bundeswehr’s presence here will help strengthen the Kabul government’s position. "At the same time, we’re also pleased that ISAF is here with its infrastructure to help us in the event of an emergency."

For his part, Major Erben is hoping that the joint reconstruction work can get started as quickly as possible despite the cold winter and that the talk will finally come to an end. The people on the streets of Kunduz have little knowledge of the complicated discussion taking place between the military and aid groups, he says. Nor do they care that the Bundeswehr has only been sent to quiet Kunduz because they had no desire to fight with the Americans in Iraq. After a quarter-century of war, the people of Kunduz are yearning for peace, security and prosperity. The want streets, drinking water, hospitals and schools. And they don’t care who provides them.