Troop withdrawal from afghanistan: playing it safe

Only insiders were allowed to know when the last convoy would leave the Bundeswehr camp in Kunduz. Because the fear of attacks is great.

The Bundeswehr’s withdrawal route: 300 kilometers from the nearest base. Photo: dpa

Kunduz is history for the Bundeswehr. The Germans have left the camp – two months earlier than originally targeted and almost exactly ten years to the day after the first advance team of the Bundeswehr arrived in the northern Afghan city. On Friday evening, the Bundeswehr convoys rolled out of Kunduz with a total of 119 vehicles and 441 soldiers. On Saturday morning, they arrived unharmed in Mazar-i-Sharif, now the last German base in Afghanistan.

Kunduz had long since ceased to be a field camp. Instead of tents, the soldiers spent the night in smart buildings with green atriums. The roads were prepared for all weather with gravel and concrete sewers. Officially, the camp was called the "Regional Reconstruction Team." Up to 2,000 soldiers lived in this small town at times.

Just a year ago, the area of the camp was doubled. Then the decision was made in Berlin to abandon the Kunduz camp at the end of this year – although the Bundeswehr’s mission under the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) will continue until 2014. According to plans, up to 800 German soldiers are to remain in the country after that.

It is not just any outpost that has been abandoned: Kunduz is the site of the first ground fighting by German soldiers since 1945. A total of 35 German soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in attacks and by shelling, and 18 others died in accidents or suicide.

140 civilians bombed

But Kunduz also stands for the bombing of two tanker trucks stuck on a sandbar in the Kunduz River, ordered by German Colonel Georg Klein, which killed an estimated 140 civilians. The early abandonment of the symbolic camp is meant to show: For us Germans, the war is over here. "We definitely want to play it safe that it wasn’t due to the plan, if there are incidents," Colonel Jochen Schneider said in Kunduz in early September.

Schneider was the last commander of the Bundeswehr in Kunduz and responsible for organizing the withdrawal. In his office, he proudly presented colorful graphics of the overlapping phases of the withdrawal.

For all their feigned composure, the Bundeswehr leadership on the ground became visibly nervous during their final weeks in Kunduz. Not only Afghan army and police, but also the well-armored Bundeswehr vehicles were now again attacked with booby traps. At the slightest sign of increased risk, the Bundeswehr therefore cancelled patrols or transport missions.

Drones, fighter jets and helicopters searched the withdrawal route, which was a good 300 kilometers long, for traces of suspicious changes. "The big danger is that the insurgents will try one more time to launch a media-savvy operation," said Colonel Schneider a few weeks before the withdrawal.

"If they hit within 50 meters, that’s good".

The day the last convoy actually left Kunduz was therefore known only to a narrow circle. In the presence of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, the camp was officially handed over to the Afghan army and police as early as October 6.

However, the insurgents around Kunduz had already shown how strong they are again a month before the official handover. "CAS at Isa Khel" sounded over the loudspeakers installed throughout the camp for danger warnings on the evening of September 7. A few minutes earlier, there had been a violent detonation. CAS stands for close air support, for close air support by fighter planes, helicopters or armed drones.

This time, the support was directed at the Afghan army, which was trying in vain to defend a checkpoint against insurgent attacks only about three kilometers from the German camp. Shortly before the handover to the Afghan troops, who were supposedly so well prepared by the Germans, this was not exactly a hopeful sign for the time after the Germans’ withdrawal from Kunduz.

Isa Khel is not just any village for the German soldiers: this is where one of the worst battles of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan took place on Good Friday 2010; three people were killed and many injured. For a long time after that, the Bundeswehr did not venture into the village. When Isa Khel came under German control at the end of 2010, it was celebrated as a great step forward. And now, of all places, the insurgents can move freely again. What will happen when the last German soldier has left Kunduz?

Museum-quality low-tech weapon

The D-30 howitzer is a kind of Kalashnikov among guns: developed in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, it is robust and used around the world. Now the Afghans are to fight the war with this low-tech, museum-quality weapon, which the Bundeswehr could not win even with the help of high-tech aircraft from the U.S. Air Force.

Until mid-September, Bundeswehr soldiers were still deployed for this purpose in an Afghan barracks near Kunduz: The Germans enthusiastically showed the Afghan soldiers how to determine their own position, how to calculate trajectories and how to set up the howitzers so that they hit their targets reasonably accurately. "If they hit within 50 meters, that’s a success," said one of the German instructors. Artillery, he adds, is simply "an area weapon." In other words, it’s not suitable for use in the densely populated areas around Kunduz.

Just in case, a sealed-off area with space for a good 300 Bundeswehr soldiers has been set up inside the Afghan camp since this weekend: The Germans have not quite left Kunduz behind yet.