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"Every Soldier Is Aware of That Risk"

Interview conducted by Christiane Wolters (jen)
June 28, 2005

After a blast which killed two German soldiers in northern Afghanistan last weekend, DW-WORLD spoke with a German military official stationed in Kunduz about the duties and dangers of peacekeeping.

German ISAF soldiers in KabulImage: AP

On Monday, German Defense Minister Peter Struck said he had no reason to believe the explosion in a munitions warehouse that killed the German soldiers and five Afghans was an attack. "There are no indications of an attack and we continue to assume it was an accident," Struck told reporters at the time.

Yet the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which the soldiers were part of, requested an investigation to rule out a deliberate attack. A report is due by the end of the week on the deaths of the soldiers, who were part of an ISAF contingent observing ammunition-sorting operations. Germany is the biggest single contributor to ISA. Some 2,000 of the 8,300 troops on the ground there are German.

DW-WORLD spoke with Commander Roland Vogler-Wander, the Bundeswehr's spokesman in Kunduz.

DW-WORLD: On Saturday, two German soldiers were killed in a disarmament action. How dangerous is it to be a Bundeswehr soldier in Afghanistan?

Vogler-Wander: The soldiers here come into contact with armaments and munitions that have been buried for decades, that weren't correctly stored. Of course there is a risk. Every soldier who comes here is aware of that risk. They are also especially prepared and educated for it -- they learn how to deal with mines, or in special situations. We try to minimize the risk to the extent possible. But you cannot rule out that something will happen.

The accident happened during a disarmament action. What normally takes place in such an action?

ISAF Soldaten aus Deutschland in Afghanistan
German soldiers marching in AfghanistanImage: AP

The arms are laid out, registered, and loaded onto the truck. Anything that can no longer be used by the Afghan army is then destroyed and disposed of. The unusual case that led to the accident involved Piram Qul, one of the ex commanders of the Northern Alliance. Of course, he had a lot of armaments. But now he wants to run in the parliamentary elections, and whoever wants to run in that race is no longer allowed to have weapons. That's why the weapons collection was taking place in this case.

How does the Bundeswehr know where the weapons are?

We don't know. The Afghans tell us. As I said, when someone wants to run for election, he has to give up his weapons. If someone charges him with being in possession of more weapons, he is taken off the list of candidates. Of course, right now it is interesting for the warlords to get into the political process. We see that as a big opportunity.

So you're saying, giving up one's weapons is voluntary?

Right. There's no coercion.

What kinds of weapons are we talking about here?

Mostly small-caliber weapons, such as machine guns like Kalashnikovs. There are bazookas, light weight ordnance, anti-aircraft guns, which were used in the civil war or in the Mujaheddin against the Russians.

Do delicate situations often come up during these disarmament actions?

Der deutsche Verteidigungsminister Peter Struck im Gespräch mit Soldaten, Kabul, Afghanistan
Struck visited Kabul in 2002Image: AP

It is risky if the munitions aren't properly stored. For example, when the safety has already been pulled on a mine. Of course, then it is dangerous. But our people are trained to the point that they can recognize this danger and say, 'We won't touch this one.'

The disarmament of militias are considered the main job of the peacekeepers in Afghanistan. How far along are they?

There are many, many arms in Afghanistan. But I always say, every weapon that is turned in, makes Afghanistan a bit safer. And every firearm that no longer is in the hands of the wrong people, but that goes to the government, adds to the further stability and also to the improvement of the country.

How do the people of Afghanistan view the deployed Bundeswehr soldiers?

Positively. The people don't want any more arms. They don't want warlords. They want to live in peace and quiet and want stability and political co-determination. They are pleading for it.

What's the mood among the troops after the accident on Saturday?

We live here in a camp with 300 people. We are always together. We eat together, we work together, we have leisure time together. Losing a colleague is very oppressive, and it hurts. I knew the people who died and the ones who were injured. I spoke with them frequently. It certainly does affect one personally.

What will the consequences be for the Bundeswehr after the accident?

We have to live with the fact that there is a certain amount of risk involved. As soldiers, we know that and we are trained for it. We are prepared for the fact, and Defense Minister Struck has also clearly said, that we have to be ready to accept the fact that in this deployment, a soldier can lose his life.

What other conditions make this a difficult deployment?

The climate. Its almost 50 degrees here right now. The bad roads and the infrastructure make it difficult. But I prefer to see these difficulties as challenges.

What is the biggest challenge?

In my view? That we reach our goal, which is to help the Afghan government to achieve stability. I think we're on the right path.

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