Germany’s armed forces officially pulled out of Afghanistan this week. They left behind many Afghan workers who could face persecution or even death at the hands of the Taliban for the help they provided the Germans, despite political pledges to provide protection.
Working for Germany for 12 years leaves its mark. A strengthened belief in the law, in government responsibility and in taking peaceful action against perceived injustices. So when Abdul Rauf Nazari, 49, sets off in the sweltering heat of Mazar-i-Sharif for the umpteenth time to find someone willing to take responsibility, he is armed only with a slim, silver-colored cooler bag containing all the documents of his work for the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, at the Camp Marmal base.
All of a sudden, it seems that no one feels accountable for the fact that he and 100 other local staff members have now become potential targets of the Taliban because of the work they did for the Bundeswehr. “I must have been to the camp 10 or 15 times,” he says in his meticulously tidy home. “The Germans there say they can’t do anything for me. They say that I was employed by a subcontractor, after all. But when I went to my employer, they sent me back to the Germans.” As a final gesture from the Bundeswehr, he was finally given piece of paper torn out of a spiral notepad with a handwritten email address at the camp gate. But his message received no answer.
In recent weeks, the Bundeswehr has accelerated its withdrawal from Afghanistan, driven by the expedited pull-out of American troops – and concerns about security in Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban are closing in. At midday on June 21, a lone Taliban member in an orange turban turned up at the western gate of the city, leading police to retreat to the city center without a fight. The army didn’t move to secure the gate until hours later. U.S. intelligence is concerned that the government in Kabul could collapse within six months after the American withdrawal.SPIEGEL International
Several districts of the province around Mazar-i-Sharif have fallen completely in recent days. And the land route to Kabul has grown extremely dangerous. The last A400M military transport aircraft took off from Camp Marmal in the evening of June 29. Drones, helicopters, ammunition, even the 27-ton memorial stone for the fallen soldiers of the Bundeswehr are already back in Germany. A total of 22,500 liters of beer, wine and sparkling wine were all taken back to Germany because the soldiers didn’t manage to drink it all.
But significantly less support has been provided to hundreds of local Afghan hires who have been denounced and threatened as traitors by the Taliban – or, in isolated cases, even been the target of assassination attempts. In mid-April, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer spoke of Germany’s “deep commitment” to not “leave these people unprotected.” And earlier this month, she rescinded a rule that only those workers whose contracts ended no more than two years ago would be allowed to come to Germany. This means that around 350 additional people can now hope to be allowed to move to Germany.
Back in Mazar-i-Sharif, thought, the military personnel under her control have been busily cutting ties with local workers with as few strings attached as possible. And this isn’t a new phenomenon related to the hasty pullout – it has been going on for quite a bit longer. DER SPIEGEL spoke with more than a dozen local hires and obtained internal Bundeswehr documents, including contracts, termination letters and chat transcripts. The stories told by people who helped the Bundeswehr and the documents examined show evidence of a systematic effort to shirk responsibility.
Pressured into a New Contract
Since 2009, Abdul Rauf Nazari has worked in one of the most sensitive areas of the gigantic field camp: the large kitchen. His brother has worked there since 2010 as well. He was responsible for cleaning and tidying up while his brother was the foreman of the 30-person kitchen team. It took nearly eight months of health and security checks before they received their contracts, as well as upgraded access cards that allowed them to move around the camp unaccompanied at any time.
Their official employers have changed over time. At first, they were employed by the American company Supreme. Then, they were employed by the Bundeswehr, and starting in 2012, by the Italian military service provider Ciano. “But our work and our team remained the same,” Nazari says. Management at Ciano then pressured them in early 2020 to sign new temporary contracts with a company called Ecolog, which has its headquarters in Dubai. “Anyone who didn’t sign the contract was fired,” he says.
The choice of Ecolog is a perplexing one, given the scandals related to previous contracts the company has signed with the Bundeswehr: camouflage clothing that hued pink after a wash, poor-quality diesel, and the inappropriate disposal of wastewater. The new contract for the kitchen staff was tailor-made for getting rid of them. The first item of the contract states that “employment is for a fixed term,” ending on April 30, 2021. It also reduced salaries – from $400 to $350 a month in Abdul Rauf Nazari’s case. He shrugs his shoulders. “What were we supposed to do?” He says that laundry workers, painters and electricians were given the same temporary contracts.
He says the kitchen workers were sent home just before Christmas, allegedly because of a coronavirus quarantine. They were told to return in 14 days. Instead, at the beginning of January, news arrived that they had been terminated. Since then, they have been trying to recover unpaid wages and the contents of their lockers. Most importantly, though, they have been fighting to not be left behind. So far, their efforts have been in vain.
Abdul Rauf Nazari’s brother ran into a Taliban checkpoint five months ago while trying to take his seriously ill wife to Kabul. “Suddenly, they closed the road and shot the driver in front of us. They saw my wife with a catheter in the back of her hand and waved us through. We were incredibly lucky, but how often is that going to happen?”
The Bundeswehr isn’t leaving behind all of their local workers. According to the Defense Ministry, the visa applications of 471 local workers with almost 1,900 family members have been accept, and “around 95 percent of them will receive the necessary documents needed to travel to Germany “by the end of the Bundeswehr’s presence in Afghanistan.”
But the selection criteria seem to be arbitrary. Elyas Noori, who worked at the food counter, isn’t allowed to go to Germany. But his brother Abbas, who worked next door as the equipment manager in the camp’s gym, was able to obtain the gray “travel pass for foreigners” for himself and his family. The question of whether the fitness instructor is more at risk than the man serving dinner is determined by contract status.
In Berlin, Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer’s statement about Germany’s “deep commitment” caused quite a stir. In the first meeting of state secretaries following the comment in April, the Interior Ministry insisted on limiting the protection program, fearing a large wave of applications. Top officials in the Development Ministry also warned against setting overly soft criteria because they worried that hundreds of Afghan employees of German aid projects might also apply for a residence permit for Germany.
The weekly rounds of meetings with high level officials from the different ministries have produced no results ever since. At the Defense Ministry, it isn’t just Kramp-Karrenbauer who has been frustrated. Leading military officers, including the commander of Operations Command, have also warned internally of disastrous knock-on effects if the Taliban were to hunt down people who used to help the Bundeswehr. “Then, it would be completely clear that we didn’t withdraw, we fled,” says one general.
In the end, it was Chancellor Angela Merkel herself who urged the ministers to finally find a compromise and lift the two-year limit. The new rules could rescue a few of the most imperilled former chief translators and negotiators for the Bundeswehr – those who were dismissed from their jobs because they were receiving too many threats.
In the better days of the Bundeswehr mission, it was a matter of course to see Abdul Wahed Sharif among German, American and Afghan generals or shaking hands with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai, standing next to then-German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière. In 2012, the defense minister even nominated Sharif for a gold Bundeswehr Cross of Honor.
Sharif had been a “language mediator” for the Afghan army’s top German adviser in the north, maintaining contacts with intelligence services, village elders and even Taliban commanders. “Everything the Germans wanted to know from the Afghans and vice versa went through my number,” he says. “Everyone had it.” He was dismissed in 2014 with the promise that Germany would take him in because of the dangers he faced. But in May 2015, he received a rejection with no explanation. Even German officers for whom he had translated and interpreted have been fighting for his case ever since, but without any luck.
It would be reasonable to assume that the Bundeswehr would provide special protection for Afghan personnel who were facing the greatest threats. But the refusal to allow Sharif to come to Germany is anything but an isolated case. Interpreter and translator Jawed Sultani also spent years working on sensitive missions. As part of the Tactical PsyOps Teams, he joined the Bundeswehr after combat operations in a van equipped with loudspeakers. They would drive through villages to ask whose fields had been damaged. “We wanted to improve contacts with the populace,” he says.
A Bitter Laugh
The first threatening letters began arriving soon thereafter – signed and stamped by the Taliban. Sultani submitted a “danger report” to the German leadership eight times, but every single one was rejected. They said he wasn’t in such great danger. Then, in 2018, he was dismissed. He claims an officer told him verbally: “If they threaten you, they’ll follow you and come to us – it’s too dangerous.” He laughs bitterly at the very notion. “As if the Taliban had to follow me to find Camp Marmal.”
Even when he applied to the Bundeswehr to emigrate to Germany, he was rejected. Once again, no “particular threat” had been identified. “What kind of logic is that?” he asks. “Too dangerous for the Bundeswehr, but not under threat? You Germans are flying out a 27-ton memorial stone and 22,000 liters of beer. But you’re leaving the people who stood in the field with you behind?”
Sharif, Sultani, as well as at least one other interpreter who was fired in 2016 because there were too many threats against his life, were rejected as part of the local hire procedures for applying to move to Germany. They were told their contracts ended too long ago.
Now, after the revision of the two-year rule, they would be eligible. But nobody had reached out to them by the middle of last week to let them know. Meanwhile, no one can be reached at the telephone number provided for queries. Fears are rife in the city about how much time is left to submit applications in the event that the local UN offices also have to be evacuated because of the threat of attacks by the approaching Taliban.
Even a German contracting firm that wanted to bring its Afghan employees to Germany on its own initiative has hit a stone wall. Daniel Paulig, a businessman based in Flensburg, Germany, built hangars at Camp Marmal and supplied fuel. When it became clear that Germany would withdraw, he asked his four permanent employees whether they felt threatened. They all said “yes.” Paulig had them apply for biometric passports in Kabul, organized jobs with accommodations for them in Germany and also applied for visas.
But no matter where he inquired – with the military administration in Camp Marmal, the mayor of Flensburg or Chancellor Merkel’s office – he was unable to get the visas approved. In the end, he sent a message using the contact form for citizen services on the website of the German Interior Ministry. “Unfortunately, the Taliban can’t distinguish between whether a local employee worked directly for the armed forces or indirectly through a company,” he wrote.
The answer came from the Defense Ministry on June 8. A department head informed him succinctly that “employees of civilian companies are not eligible for the local hire program.” The response has deeply angered Paulig. “This is about human lives,” he says.
But the fine distinction of employment that the department head referred to so regretfully has in many cases been brought about by the ministry he works for.
Since 2015, Samim Jabary has been the most prominent face in numerous videos produced to document the Afghan armed forces battle against the Taliban. He was essentially the face of the German PR campaign in Afghanistan. Jabary was always at the forefront when districts were recaptured from the Taliban. “Once again, the enemies of Islam are showing their savage faces,” you could hear him saying out of view of the camera.
“A Little More Heroic Please!”
Jabary had to send his scripts and the broadcast-ready versions of his reports to his mentors at the Bundeswehr, who sometimes asked for corrections or made suggestions like: “Make your sound voice a little more heroic please!” After they were approved, the videos were then sent to local stations or posted on social media channels. The Bawar Media Center (BMC) in Mazar-i-Sharif, with around 70 employees, was the voice of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan and promoted its agenda, including the need to fight the Taliban and strengthen women’s rights. In addition, the BMC did the research for confidential situation reports on the mood in the north that were fully financed by Germany – almost 2 million euros a year. Even the salaries came in cash directly from the camp.
But back in 2018, the contracts that had until then been signed with the Bundeswehr were shifted to an Afghan company. Nothing else changed, and local tax authorities continued to be dismissed with the claim that the BMC was a part of the “international forces.” When employees began asking their German mentors with increasing anxiousness about how things were looking in terms of getting them visas to move to Germany, they were suddenly told that, because BMC is an Afghan company, its employees do not have the right to move to Germany.
Jabary was stunned. “I have repeatedly insulted the Taliban in the worst possible terms,” he says. He says it was the right thing to do and that he doesn’t want to be misunderstood. “But if the Taliban get me, they will immediately kill me.”
On a Friday in late May, 28 employees went to the camp to turn in their applications for visas to move to Germany. The next morning, 26 of them were summarily fired by their Afghan manager. Their German mentor wrote in a chat with them that he “absolutely supports the decisions made by the manager: You have made it clear that your focus is not the future of the media center, but rather that you want to come to Germany.”
“Everyone Knows Us, Our Voices, Our Faces”
Marwa Suhraby, one of the five women who were dismissed, shakes her head “at such naivety. Everyone knows us, our voices, our faces.” She started working as a media analyst at BMC in 2016 and says she spent years fighting her family and her in-laws. “I had always wanted to work since I was an 8-year-old girl! But as female journalists who have worked for foreigners, we will be doomed if the Taliban come to power. All the things that the foreigners have always accused the Afghans of doing – abandoning women, dishonest and not taking responsibility – the Germans are now doing all that themselves.”
In front of the walled area of the company Ecolog near Camp Marmal, the dismissed kitchen cleaners, launderers and painters gathered in mid-June as they waited to somehow be rescued. Navid, an electrician, still bears the shrapnel wounds on his neck and hands from the bomb that the Taliban are believed to have used to attack the Kabul Bank in the center of the city, where he and a few soldiers had hoped to get their wages.
Each day, a little more of Ecolog disappears. First, trucks roll up to pick up machinery and furniture. Then the managers and, finally, the last employee disappear in the direction of the border to Uzbekistan. The telephone lines have gone dead. The men wait outside the empty courtyard. In the distance, another cargo plane lands to fly out the Bundeswehr’s equipment and its soldiers.