A German soldier carries the flag at a turnover ceremony on
Germany's former base in Faizabad, Afghanistan.
key to the camp was handed over to Afghan police
have a training center on the site. The Aga Khan Foundation
will use one of the
building complexes for university purposes.
The Beginning of
the End for the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan (Financial
Times Deutschland, Germany)
deaths so far, it has been the bloodiest deployment of German troops since the
end of World War II. But it is over. ... Until Tuesday, the date of that last
day was the best kept secret in Faizabad. The
soldiers spoke reverently of 'D-Day,' a reference to the day Allied forces landed
in Normandy. Except that D-Day in 1944 marked the end of the war. Hardly anyone
believes that to be the case in Afghanistan. ... skepticism is growing about
what progress will remain once foreign troops have left."
German troops on patrol in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in 2010: The largest German military deployment since World War II - not long ago a taboo idea - is nearing its end. German troops feel an emptiness, having a sense that the mission - and the war - are far from over.
The withdrawal from
Afghanistan has begun: the Bundeswehr is pulling out
of the first of their larger bases. What remains is a feeling of not having
completed the mission - and fear of a new war.
In the middle of the cargo hold, the luggage is piling up.
Backpacks, boxes and two large dog kennels. Sixteen Passengers with body armor
are pressed into the upholstered seats of the Bundeswehr
helicopter, in which they sweat more than they would in the heat outside. A
soldier looks into the colorful box in his hands, making sure the three turtles
he wants to take home are still moving. Another lures two dogs through the
narrow space into the kennels and locks them in. A pastor is on board - his
mission, too, has ended. They're homeward bound. To Germany. The pilot switches
on the engine.
Another squad of German troops is also set to leave the Bundeswehr base in Faizabadthis September day. Eight years ago, the
Germans built this base in the far north of Afghanistan for up to 500 troops.
Now it is the first major base to be vacated. On Tuesday, they handed the camp
over to Afghan police. It's the beginning of the end of one of the Bundeswehr's most controversial deployments ever. The
withdrawal from Afghanistan has begun.
In December 2001, the federal government sent the first
troops to the Hindu Kush to fight the radical Islamic Taliban. With 52 deaths
so far, it has been the bloodiest deployment of German troops since the end of
World War II. But it is over. Due to public pressure, politicians have decided
that by 2014 the Bundeswehr will be out of
Afghanistan - even if the mission hasn't been completed and the country still
The pull-out is the greatest logistical operation in its
history: over the next two years, 8,650 containers will have to be shipped back
to Germany, 250 filled with ammunition. Add to that 1,900 vehicles, 1,200 of
which are armored. Thousands of computers, printers, phones, dishes, tents, cots
and generators are being counted, packaged and shipped. There has never been
anything on this scale.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gunnar Steinseifer
sits in his sparsely furnished office with a stack of colorful PowerPoint print
outs on the table before him. They show how goods will flow and personnel moved.
The officer is the chief of the Logistics and Support Battalion in Mazar-i-Sharif, the "supreme
storekeeper" of German troops in the Hindu Kush. Ask this numbers man how to
plan such a mission and he'll tell you: "To begin with, you need five
liters of bottled water and another five bulk liters a man per day."
Whenever somebody somewhere in the German area of operations needed a pair of
pliers, a mattress or a weapon, Steinseifer had them.
When he looks at the flow of material today, he sees a different picture:
"The arrows are reversed."
The rate at which his stock is dwindling gives a sense of
what's happening just outside. For weeks, more fuel has flowed out of the tanks
than usual - on average 84,000 liters a day [22,190 gallons]. "We require
a lot more transport capacity now" says Steinseifer,
who also provides fuel for America's huge cargo aircraft. Over 30,000 U.S.
troops have already been pulled out, and more than 70 bases given up.
Now it's the Germans' turn to pull out. Faizabad
is to be the model. In his head, the chief logistics officer has it all worked out:
he knows to the exact day when something will arrive at his door, where it will
be stored and where it will need to be forwarded. Only a broken crane can stop
the flow. A scouting party collected and tagged every single item and
associated them with one of the 3,714 inventory codes. It was then decided what
will remain in Faizabad or sold in the country. The
rest is bound for Germany - 450 containers and 112 vehicles.
Life's little luxuries were the first to go. Everything that
made life in this war-ravaged country a little more tolerable was flown out
almost immediately: stainless steel kitchen containers are gone, as are deli meats,
cheeses - sandwiches haven't been available for weeks. The field kitchen now
prepares "just add water" group lunches. Near the end, the chef hands
out EPAs - one-man ration packs containing a small
cardboard box with non-perishables. The last beer is served in the small,
brightly lit "Talibar." The memorial for
the four dead German and one Czech soldier has already been taken down: four
and a half tons of stone, numbered and crated. It will be re-built in a German
barracks. Even the Maypole,
which stood in the middle of the camp, is headed home before beginning its
second life as an exhibit in the Bundeswehr Military History Museum - which even sent a
curator. The transmitter shack of the Bundeswehr
radio station, the baptismal
font and the flag of the military chaplaincy are museum-bound, too.
The final prayer resonates with nostalgia. Military Chaplain
JörgReglinski speaks of
the starry sky and mountain peaks around them, then sings with his 40-strong uniformed
congregation Great Lord, We Praise You.
For communion, the men form a circle around the concrete altar and Chaplain Reglinski deconsecrates the cross, the candleholder and the
chalice. Some soldiers had a hard time saying their goodbyes, he says later.
For them, their tour of duty also brought positive experiences, such as making
it possible for girls to attend school. "The men are wondering what they
have achieved and how the situation here will change now."
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With chains dangling, a crane lifts a corrugated tin roof off
of a generator. A soldier pushes and pulls until the roughly 10-square-meter
roof lifts up. "We fought for this to protect it from the sun back
in 2008," he recalls. At the time, no one back home could imagine just how
unbearable the summer heat could be for this power source. It was a small
victory, now erased. "It's a strange feeling, having to demolish something
like this," says Captain Rainer Barth, who's on his fourth tour.
"This is final. No one else will follow."
"For the soldiers who have been repeatedly deployed
here, this is an emotional thing," says base commander Ralf Blasajewsky. Not for him, though. "For me, it's a job,"
says the lanky lieutenant colonel. "This is by far the biggest challenge
of my life. I will be judged by whether I can make it work." He is aware
that quite literally - he is writing military history. He is recording every
step of the withdrawal, all the way up to the last day. "Perhaps, others
will be able to avoid our mistakes."
Until Tuesday, the date of that last day was the best kept
secret in Faizabad. The soldiers spoke reverently of
"D-Day," a reference to the day Allied forces landed in Normandy. Except
that D-Day in 1944 marked the beginning of the end of the war. Hardly anyone believes that to be
the case in Afghanistan. Drug traffickers, Islamists, Tajiks
and Uzbeks, some with private armies, are jostling for position for after the withdrawal
of foreign troops. The Taliban, which are barely established in the region,
could try to exploit the power vacuum. For over a year they have controlled an
important road to Pakistan, about 50 kilometers southeast of Faizabad. Now, with the Germans gone, they'll likely want
Afghan police have little to counter this with. They lack
ammunition and fuel. The first relief agencies have already withdrawn. Without
German troops, this area is too dangerous for them. "We no longer have a
hospital or a decent dispensary." says Gerhard Olde,
the Foreign Aid Ministry's representative in the province. There are still more
than a dozen German civilians in the region, but not for much longer, Olde believes. He considers the transfer of security
responsibilities to the Afghans, something celebrated by Western politicians, to
be a farce, something "invented to save face while exiting the country."
He draws his own conclusions and leaves.
Even in the city of Faizabad,
where a dozen years ago there was hardly a car on the road, skepticism is growing
about what progress will remain once foreign troops have left. Ahmad Reshar sits on a plastic chair outside of his "office."
For months, the security situation has been deteriorating, says the 27-year-old
doctor. "Without the German troops, there will again be war."
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