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Kunduz: A Taliban den?

Florian Weigand / gdApril 29, 2015

The northern Afghan city of Kunduz is a symbol for Germany. It was meant to be a showcase project of German development policy. But the early signs of success weren't enough to prevent the West's failure in the region.

Letzte deutsche Soldaten aus Kundus abgezogen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr//PAO RC N

Initial plans foresaw German troops being deployed to the western Afghan city of Herat, a cultural metropolis and the country's third largest city located at the border to Iran. Instead, as a result of several negotiations, the inconspicuous and largely unknown city of Kunduz bordering the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan was chosen. One of the reasons for this was that it was believed to be a comparatively safe area.

The first advance unit of the German military or Bundeswehr arrived on site 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. The situation appeared to be so much under control that the first soldiers went on patrol with vehicles they had purchased on the local market.

18.09.2013 CW Online Karte Afghanistan Kunduz Englisch

Paratroopers from the first contingent even had a try at development work. They built wells and bridges. The first villages that benefited from the so-called "quick impact projects" were located along potential evacuation routes. The goal was to win the hearts and minds of the local population should an emergency arise. They were the result of tactical military thinking, rather than of developmental policy-making.

Shortly after, in 2004, the first tensions flared up with governmental aid organizations. But despite this, a fruitful relationship soon developed, particularly after the creation of the "Provincial Reconstruction Team" (PRT) designed to boost cooperation between the German foreign office, governmental aid organizations and the military.

Dozens of development workers and hundreds of soldiers were now based in Kunduz, an exuberant town perched on a green plain surrounded by paddy fields and hills. In fact, the German army and the governmental aid organization erected a new, more secure camp on one of these hills. And so it didn't take long for the Germans to jokingly refer to the situation as "Bad Kunduz," a play on the names of German spa resorts like Bad Ems or Bad Münstereifel ("Bad" being the German word for bath).

The city was transformed. Roads which used to be riddled with bomb craters from previous wars were now repaired. Schools were built and health and teacher training centers were established. Workshops were held regularly on peace building and the promotion of small enterprises.

But the relative calm and tranquility came to an abrupt end in 2007 when a suicide bomber killed three German soldiers in a downtown market. Two years later, the controversial decision by the local German commander, Colonel Georg Klein, to order the bombing of two oil tankers made world headlines. The two trucks had apparently been hijacked by the Taliban and the officer was afraid they would be used as potential bombs against the German camp. Dozens of civilians were killed as a result of the air strike.

Subsequently, Kunduz came more and more under enemy fire. For instance, the Bundeswehr became increasingly entangled in firefights with the Taliban. A total of 18 Germans soldiers were killed during the German presence in the area. "Like no other place, Kunduz has left a mark on the Bundeswehr. It was here that people built up and fought, cried and comforted, killed and died," said then German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière as the Bundeswehr ended its mission in October 2013.

But the pullout seems to have been premature. Villagers were already afraid of what the future would bring even as the Germans prepared to withdraw. "We know that we can make no progress without military support from the Bundeswehr," a member of an NGO told DW at the time. Local companies which cooperated with the military simply crashed after the pullout. And the military camp is now falling apart after being handed over to the Afghan security forces.

Nevertheless, aid organizations continued to make the best out of the situation. A regional infrastructure development fund kept on building roads. The German foreign office is committed to providing 87 million euros to the provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Baghlan and Kunduz as part of a German program to stabilize the region from 2010 to 2017. The focus of German development aid still lies on northern Afghanistan and a large part of the 430 million euros flowing to Afghanistan every year goes into these areas.

Germany's Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Thomas Silberhorn, spoke of "impressive developmental success" in when he visited northern Afghanistan in February.

Afghan National Army soldiers (ANA) (R) arrive at the compound of a provincial governor's office in Jalalabad April 8, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Parwiz)
Is Kunduz in safe hands after Germany's withdrawal?Image: Reuters/Parwiz

Meanwhile, the Taliban are gaining strength by the day. Kunduz carries a symbolic significance for the militants. Until the fall of their government in 2001, the city was Taliban's stronghold in northern Afghanistan. After a decade of NATO's presence in the city, its conquest would be very prestigious for the Islamists.

Soon after the withdrawal of German troops from Kunduz, the reports started to emerge that the group was getting active in the province again. In a symbolic act last summer, the militants hoisted their flag on former German army base after temporarily capturing it.

In the fall, ARD's Marc Thörner reported that the Taliban had established a shadow government with shariah courts in the area around Kunduz. Last week, the provincial governor warned the city could fall to the insurgents. Now the fighting rages on in Gul Tepa village near Kunduz, where a German NGO had built a school in 2005.