German soldiers in Afghanistan can be as aware and alert as they like -- they'll still be powerless against suicide bombers. Every Afghan that approaches a patrol could potentially be carrying explosives, ready to die along with his or her victims. So what if there are some kids playing peacefully nearby? That's no guarantee for safety. Monday's suicide bomber sent five children to their deaths.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in Kunduz. The governor of the province spoke of suicide bombers who'd snuck in from Pakistan. Taliban fighters who target NATO's ISAF troops and then retreat into the border area to Pakistan -- such an enemy is difficult to defeat militarily. It's like an octopus that just keeps growing new arms.
The reservoir of suicide bombers appears to be large -- they don't want any NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. NATO's answer to the problem: More soldiers. Only recently, the German parliament decided to send an additional 1,000 Bundeswehr soldiers to Afghanistan, in part because the number of attacks is increasing and German camps continue to have rockets fired at them.
Even if NATO isn't thinking of a withdrawal, the attackers are managing to sow the seeds of doubt in the soldiers' home countries. When 10 French soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in August, the country was in a state of shock for weeks. The Dutch have had enough of losing their soldiers in the dangerous southern region of Afghanistan, and will soon be pulling back. And the 96 "no" votes in the German parliament last week were also a sign that many MPs no longer see any purpose in the mission.
But while the decision-makers at home can only fall into rhetorical traps, real minefields -- and with them the possibility of injury or death -- threaten the soldiers in Afghanistan. This permanent danger is making troops even more distrustful and nervous. When a German soldier shot at a woman and two children, he suspected a suicide bomber in the car that suddenly turned towards the checkpoint he was guarding. In the past seven years of Germany's involvement in Afghanistan, nothing like this had ever happened.
The growing threat is having the effect that soldiers are sticking close to their base camps and avoiding any contact to the civilian population, which then only shows increasing animosity towards the soldiers. Clearly, such a "spiral of alienation" is no help to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans in the relatively peaceful north are still amiable to the Germans, say the generals. But if even this support starts to dwindle, there will be consequences for the entire NATO mission. It may even be that the fight for a stable, peaceful Afghanistan can no longer be won.
Nina Werkhaeuser is DW-RADIO's defense and security policy correspondent in Berlin (dc)