On May 18, thousands of people took to the streets of Taloqan, the provincial capital of Takhar province, in the north of Afghanistan. They were protesting nighttime raids by Afghan and NATO troops the day before in which four people were killed, including two women. They clashed with security forces and 12 people reportedly lost their lives. NATO said four “insurgents” were killed and two captured.
That evening scenes of the massive and angry protest march were shown on television throughout the world. The major U.S. networks said that the demonstrators shouted “death to the Americans.” Only the German news agency Deutsche Welle reported shouts of “death to the Germans.”
That the people waving their fist in the streets were especially angry with the German troops stationed in the area was clear, and they tried to storm a Bundeswehr military outpost. It was later confirmed that the dead were victims of German gunfire. What remains unclear is why the sharp Afghan-German tension went unreported in the U.S. media, even after May 28, when a bombing attack killed Gen. Daud Daud, regional police commander in northern Afghanistan, the provincial police chief, and two German soldiers. The bombing also wounded German Gen. Markus Kneip, the NATO forces’ commander for northern Afghanistan.
This week, the German magazine Spiegel gave a more complete picture of the May events.
On June 7, under the headline “Mood in Northern Afghanistan Shifts against German Troops,” Spiegel Online reported that “The situation is in northern Afghanistan is deteriorating. Bomb attacks against German soldiers are increasing in frequency and force, and local ambivalence has turned into hate. The risk for Bundeswehr troops deployed in the country has increased as has the number killed.”
When Afghan demonstrators took to the streets again following the death of Daud and Kneip, “They were carrying one of their great generals to his grave, thousands of mourners marching through the streets of the small city, chanting words of hate and trembling with rage,” said the magazine.
“But when the crowd surged through the streets of the provincial capital Taloqan, it wasn’t calling for revenge against the attackers but, rather, against those who are supposedly to blame for everything: Americans, Germans and any other foreigners,” wrote Spiegel correspondents Matthias Gebauer, Susanne Koelbl and Christoph Reuter. “At the head of the march was a car equipped with loudspeakers. Inside, a young cleric chanted ‘Khariji,’ an umbrella term for evil directed toward the foreigners. It didn’t seem to matter that the Taliban promptly and proudly claimed responsibility for the attack, or that German soldiers were among its victims.”
“Indeed, Germany is once again at odds over the war in Afghanistan,” said the Spiegel report. “This ironically comes at a time when the northern part of the country was supposed to be getting safer. Since 2009, American Special Forces have conducted nighttime ‘capture or kill’ operations, often several times a week, though prisoners are rarely taken. Last year, they killed at least two-dozen Taliban commanders in Kunduz. By last fall, half of the Taliban’s leaders were dead, and most of the remaining ones had reportedly fled to Pakistan. Some even defected to the government’s side.
“Likewise, coalition and Afghan troops were gradually recapturing large swaths of Taliban-held territory. They were operating in tandem with — and rearming — the same local militias they had tried to disarm before 2006. In early January 2011, Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, Gen. Kneip’s predecessor as the German regional commander in the north, sounded self-assured and confident of victory in a video press conference with Pentagon correspondents. ‘They are leaving the area,’ he said, in reference to the Taliban. ‘If they don’t leave, they are killed.’ But Gen. Kneip, who barely escaped with his life, has now been forced to realize that this strategy can cut both ways.”
According to Spiegel, the day after the deadly May 17 raid, “At about 8 a.m., a first wave of protesters marched through the streets of Taloqan carrying four bodies covered in flowered shrouds. The procession wound its way toward the foreigners at the German base. The protesters started throwing stones, but they pulled back after the Germans fired warning shots.
“The next wave arrived two hours later. This time there were an estimated 2,000-3,000 people, some of whom were armed with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. They tried to storm the German base, but Afghan guards and Bundeswehr soldiers fired on the crowd. By evening, 12 protesters were dead, and local hospitals were treating 75 people for wounds.”
The next day German military officials said there was “no indications that attackers had been killed by shots coming from German soldiers.” Subsequently, the Bundeswehr released a statement online indicating that German soldiers might have shot an attacker after all. “According to current information,” the statement said, “it cannot be ruled out that one person was shot in the head-and-neck area.”
“A United Nations investigative report now concludes that the Bundeswehr shot and killed three attackers in Taloqan,” said Spiegel. “The UN account describes the situation as follows: The mob was raging out of control, four Afghan and two German soldiers were already wounded, and the camp’s generator was on fire. The Germans hadapplied the correct methods of escalation, first firing with signal pistols, then firing warning shots in the air and, finally, shooting at the attackers
with live ammunition.”
“The UN calls the behavior of German soldiers ‘appropriate.’” said Spiegel. “The same conclusion is reached in the German investigative report that the Defense Ministry has kept under wraps for more than a week now, along with the images recorded by surveillance cameras at the base. Though the reports seem balanced, the Germans soldiers are still hated in Taloqan. Of course, none of this matters much in Taloqan, where residents now believe that the foreigners are killers. Now that the local population’s confidence in the foreigner aid teams has been destroyed, the last remaining German reconstruction and development workers and the entire UN staff are being withdrawn.”
Most of the troops with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan’s north are German. Germany commands two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and operates the logistical support base for all forces in the region, including 5,000 U.S. troops.
The events in Taloqan can be expected to affect the situation in Berlin. German public opinion is running strong against the country’s involvement in the war. A recent opinion poll by the magazine Focus says 84 percent of Germans oppose sending combat troops to the south of Afghanistan where the fighting is most fierce, and 63 percent do not support present deployment in the north, where the emphasis is said to be on reconstruction.
All this happened while repots were circulating that Germany is sponsoring one of the efforts to bring U.S. and Taliban representatives together for truce negotiations, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was preparing to visit the U.S for talks with President Barak Obama. Very little was disclosed about the content of those talks, with scant mention of Afghanistan aside from Obama’s public statement of appreciation for Germany’s efforts there. But Spiegel had this to say June 8: “And in Afghanistan, the US has ceased making demands that Europe step up its engagement in the war-torn country. Indeed, Washington itself is considering a quicker withdrawal than originally planned. ‘We wish to go in together, out together,’ Merkel said on Tuesday. ‘Afghanistan will need our support, however, in the long run. So we will not abandon them.’ But the end of the Afghanistan engagement will also mark the end of another project that bound Europe to America.”