On Thursday, the German military suspended flights from Kabul. Thousands of people who worked for the Germans have been left behind. Berlin is hoping negotiations with the Taliban will give them a way out.
By Matthias Gebauer, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Christoph Hickmann, Christiane Hoffmann, Muriel Kalisch, Martin Knobbe, Steffen Lüdke, Maximilian Popp, Fidelius Schmid, Anna-Sophie Schneider, Thore Schröder und Christoph Schult
His voice was bursting with agitation. “Please, help us!” Abdullah Arash said over the phone. “We don’t have much time left.”
The conversation took place on Tuesday, Arash was hiding with his wife and two children at a friend’s apartment in Kabul. He had hardly been outside for several days, with both he and his family paralyzed by fear. They are afraid of the Taliban.
Arash worked in northern Afghanistan for the German aid organization GIZ and he asked that his real name not be used. When the Taliban took over his hometown two months ago, he fled to Kabul with his family. He hoped he would be safe in the capital. And GIZ encouraged that hope.
GIZ leaders, he says over the phone, repeatedly ensured him and his coworkers that that the Afghan army would defend the capital come what may. Now, though, the Taliban are in control.
Initially, just after the city surrendered, Arash had hoped that GIZ would fly him out to Germany. After all, the German government in Berlin had said that it would help out local hires. But his hopes began fading by the day – and recently, they have been fading by the hour.
The Taliban, Arash says, have begun going door to door in an effort to find presumed collaborators, adding that one of his GIZ colleagues had been temporarily taken into custody and beaten. “For the Taliban, everyone who worked together with the West is a traitor,” he says. “If they find me, they’ll kill me.”
At the time of our phone call on Tuesday evening, he was well aware that Germany’s evacuation attempts would soon be coming to an end. And he no longer believed that he would make it onto one of the planes.
“We spent years risking our lives for the Germans,” he says. “And now, we are simply being left to our fates.”
In the last several days, Germany was engaged in a race against time, against the Taliban – and, particularly, against its own failures and guilt. Human lives were at stake, and every person who was flown out was a small victory. Ultimately, though, Germany lost the race. Too many people simply couldn’t be saved.
On Thursday, the German military’s evacuation mission came to an end. According to Berlin, Germany was able to fly out 5,300 people from 45 different countries by Thursday, but many more remained behind. According to government sources, up to 7,000 local hires worked for German government aid projects from 2013 until this year’s pullout, and they have an average of five family members – for a total of 35,000. And that is just the aid workers, a fraction of the actual total.
The day before the airlift ended, Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of German parliament, the Bundestag, insisted that Germany’s helpers in Afghanistan cannot be left in the lurch. That, though, is what has now happened.
First, the country didn’t see the Taliban coming. Then, it didn’t want to accept the fact that Afghanistan had essentially given up without a fight. And then, Berlin still didn’t take action even after it had become clear that many people could no longer be saved. People who had worked for Germany and whose lives are therefore in danger. At the very least, they will lose a life in freedom, a life free of fear.
The mission in Afghanistan has been with us for as long as Angela Merkel has been in the Chancellery. Now, at the end of her tenure, it too is ending – and Merkel seems like a helpless bystander. “The events of the last few days are terrible, they are bitter,” the chancellor said on Wednesday in a speech to the Bundestag. “For many people in Afghanistan, it is a tragedy.”
The events currently unfolding will have consequences for Germany’s reputation in the world, for the willingness of people around the globe to work together with German troops, diplomats and development aid workers. The message is clear: Germany cannot be relied on.
Now, negotiations with the Taliban have begun to determine what comes next and to see if there might be a way to still get people out of the country following the end of the airlift. Overland, perhaps? That is currently the focus of an intensive effort, yet one thing is clear: Even if evacuations can somehow continue, not all of the people for whom Germany bears a responsibility will be able to be rescued.
It is a shameful episode.
On Wednesday afternoon, the situation at the airport in Kabul was threatening to grow even worse, according to telephone conversations with several people on the ground. The previous days had already been chaotic enough, with people crowding the gates, desperately trying to find a way in. But on Wednesday, word had begun circulating that the airlift effort would soon be over, the flights would stop and hopes would be dashed. According to the sources, people were growing more desperate and more furious.
For days, thousands of Afghans had been gathered at the gates and walls surrounding the airport waving papers in the air testifying to their former employment with different NATO armies. The German military, which only had around 150 soldiers at the airport, had little choice but to post paratroopers at the gates and to begin pulling individuals out of the crowd.
In the small groups of German coordinators, the few remaining diplomats and a few soldiers were working around the clock to produce new priority lists with the names of Germans who were still in Kabul. After that, according to the initial plan, local hires would be added. But the mobile phones of the diplomats from the embassy were ringing constantly, with Afghan contacts – including former ministers – begging to be flown out.
In those hectic hours, the instructions coming from Berlin often produced more confusion than clarity. The only constant message: German citizens must have priority, as laid out in consular law. But their numbers kept growing day after day. The diplomats and soldiers grew exhausted, with none of them getting more than three hours of sleep at a time on a sleeping pad laid out on the floor.
By mid-week, a number of things were no longer possible that had been more or less working in the days previous. To that point, there had been buses that would transport selected local hires – those who had a justified hope of being flown out – to the airport, but before long, the collection points were no longer much of a secret and, according to sources over the phone, they were besieged by furious mobs. On Wednesday, the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military, wasn’t even able to transport around 200 Afghans to the airport who were supposed to fly out that day.
Given the situation, Berlin made the decision that the last flight would depart on Thursday afternoon. The French and British made similar decisions and are pulling their troops out as well. It became clear to everybody that nothing was possible without the American troops, and Washington had announced their withdrawal would be complete by the beginning of next week. The allies had to be out by then.
Then, on Thursday, that which intelligence agencies had been warning about for several days became brutal reality. Two explosions detonated in front of the airport, killing at least 60 people and injuring 140 or more. All evidence points to an Islamic State offshoot being behind the attack. Officials say that all warnings and indications from the previous days had pointed to the danger coming from IS. The attack made the situation for those left behind even more threatening.
Three days earlier, at a secret site on the outskirts of Kabul, three men had gathered and were waiting for their telephones to ring. They all say they had worked for the German military at Mazar-e-Sharif, two as interpreters and one as a cook.
One of the interpreters has asked to be referred to as Joey. He speaks fluent English and says that he is 35 years old and that he worked for the German military until 2013, adding that he doesn’t know why his contract was ended at that time. Afterward, he says, it was difficult to find a new job, especially since he had been working for the foreigners.
When it became clear that Germany would be leaving Afghanistan, he applied to be flown out. Around a month and a half ago, he says, he received a phone call. “Congratulations, you may come to Germany,” the man on the other end of the line told him, Joey says, and he was told to apply for a visa.
He left northern Afghanistan with his wife and three children and moved into a safe house that was set up by a private initiative to support local hires who had worked for the German military. That is where they met his previous coworkers, the other interpreter and the cook. He calls them his friends.
A former Bundeswehr interpreter trapped in Kabul
As the Taliban advanced on Kabul, more and more of those living in the safehouse disappeared. On the day Kabul fell, he was told that the house itself would be closed down since it was no longer safe. It was, he was told, a target. So, Joey and his friends left. Since then, they have been sleeping at the apartments of acquaintances, never spending more than three days in one place. It’s too dangerous, says Joey.
On the Sunday when Kabul fell to the Taliban, he says he drove to the airport with his family at 6:00 a.m. It was, he says, chaotic, even at that early hour. People were trying desperately to get inside, yelling and pushing.
When he finally made it to the gate hours later, he was turned away. “Only those with a visa or citizenship,” he was told. But he had never received a visa. That evening, he and his family managed to make their way back to their accommodations.
A few days passed. He says he was able to maintain contact with some friends of his at the airport gates and they advised him not to come. “They’re shooting at us,” they told him. Joey wrote emails and waited for a call – and then he went back to the airport on Saturday, and again on Sunday. To no avail.
“Only people who have no children make it,” he says. “People who can push through the crowd. They scream and jump around to attract attention, but I can’t do that with my children.” On both evenings, they left the airport without having achieved anything. “We didn’t even get close to a soldier.”
At 9 a.m. on Monday, his telephone rang again, and the caller, Joey says, told him he worked for the German Defense Ministry. He asked: Where are you staying? Where can you go so that we can pick you up? The man told Joey that they would call again to confirm a meeting spot.
Since then, Joey and his friends have been waiting. On Thursday, they were still waiting.
But it wasn’t just the chaos that led to the frustrations experienced by Joey and people like him. It was also German bureaucracy. All the rules. And the pedantry.
Officially, the German government insisted it wanted to help local hires in Afghanistan as quickly and as unbureaucratically as possible. In fact, though, they continued to keep hurdles in place that massively slowed down the airlift. Those who used to work for the German aid organization GIZ, for example, were only eligible for evacuation if they had been an employee in the last two years. All those who came before need not apply.
The German government also refused to fly out the grown sons of local hires. The only family members allowed to come along were partners, underage children and adult, unmarried daughters. That meant that many local hires had to make an almost impossible decision: Either they left their sons behind, alone with the Taliban. Or they stayed with them in Afghanistan.
The head of the GIZ office in Afghanistan offered local hires an extra year’s salary if they remained in the country. When the offer became public, people were horrified: It was a perfect symbol for the coldness that the German government had been exuding when it came to local hires in Afghanistan.
When contacted for comment about the GIZ offer, the German Development Ministry, which is the aid organization’s primary contractor, said that GIZ local hires were being given “unbureaucratic support.” That means “assistance with accommodations, leaving the country and – if they want to remain in the country – financial help equal to one year’s pay to help with the difficult situation.”
To help with the difficult situation. It seems an odd formulation in these days of chaos.
The Development Ministry has rejected the accusations of coldness: Local hires for GIZ, they say, cannot be compared with those of the German military or police. The assumption was that developmental cooperation would continue even after the withdrawal of Western troops. Until the eve of the fall of Kabul, the ministry says, fewer than 100 local GIZ hires had contacted the Germans. Most of the around 1,800 men and women wanted to remain in the country. Then, the situation grew drastically worse and the number of people wanting to leave spiked dramatically.
What unbureaucratic assistance from GIZ looks like in practice can be read in an email from the organization to a young Afghan woman who worked on a water project. In response to the desperate email from her brother, who wanted to know if his sister qualified for help, her former project leader sent a brief reply.
Unfortunately, he cannot help her since she wasn’t directly employed by GIZ and because her activities for the project run by the German organization does not “put her in danger.” Instead, the GIZ man in faraway German recommended that she remain in Afghanistan “to help with reconstruction.” The mail ended with a cynical salutation: “Running away is not a solution.”
The crisis team in the Foreign Ministry has been working day and night, with 130,000 emails flooding the ministry in just one week. To manage the workload, diplomats have been pulled into Berlin from foreign postings, while others have delayed their departures to foreign missions. Almost the entire 2021 graduating class of attachés, almost 80 budding diplomats, are answering the phones in shifts. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is personally leading every meeting of the crisis team.
The Foreign Ministry is working to set up two possible escape routes for the period after the U.S. withdrawal and the closure of the military airport. For as long as the airport is unavailable, one plan calls for endangered Afghans to travel overland to Pakistan in secure bus convoys. The hope is that the civilian part of the Kabul airport will also resume operations, but that will take some time given the significant damage it sustained in Thursday’s blasts. It also isn’t clear who will be operating the airport in the future.
But the German Foreign Ministry doesn’t have the best reputation in Kabul at the moment. Prior to the end of the airlift on Thursday, the ministry urged people not to make their way to the airport. Those who were on the fly-out list would be contacted, the ministry said.
Many people never received the call. And some who went to the airport despite the warning ended up making it onto a plane anyway. Those who believed the promises from the Germans were left behind.
It is a fate even experienced by people who worked directly for the German military. People like Hussain Ahmad. His name has been changed for this article due to the danger he is in, despite the fact that he worked for the Bundeswehr several years ago.
Ahmad has a paper proving his employment with the Bundeswehr, and he sent a copy to DER SPIEGEL as proof of the veracity of his story. In the document, a German brigadier general wrote that on missions, Ahmad had “lent him his voice and his ear” and that he had worked for the Bundeswehr in 2008 as an interpreter. The document is dated June 1, 2021, and carries the signature of the brigadier general and a major general.
The document testifies that Ahmad, 34, worked in the area of Kunduz and elsewhere for the German military, and he also still has a proof of employment from 2008. It has faded somewhat, but the signature can still be easily read.
A former Bundeswehr employee trapped in Kabul
He says he has nothing bad to say about the Bundeswehr. When he contacted his former employer, the brigadier general, to ask for confirmation of his employment, the officer took immediate action. Indeed, Ahmad is still in regular contact with him. But when it comes to German agencies, the situation isn’t quite as amiable. However, it is with them that his fate lies.
Ahmad says that he has sent several emails to the German Foreign Ministry and other German agencies in the search for assistance. He sent screenshots of those emails to DER SPIEGEL, including a confirmation of receipt from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) dated August 16, 2021. He received a reply from BAMF on August 19.
In the reply, a staff member informed him that his email had been forwarded to the Foreign Ministry. She also told him of the ministry’s hotline. She signed off by writing: “Take care of yourself.”
Since then, he says, he hasn’t received a response to any of his emails. And he was unable to reach anybody at the Foreign Ministry hotline either.
Ahmad began trying to use other channels, ultimately establishing contact to a member of German parliament with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) through a private acquaintance in Germany. The parliamentarian was successful in adding him to a Foreign Ministry evacuation list, Ahmad says, but adds that he has no written proof.
Despite being on the list, Ahmad made his way to the Kabul airport every day last week. He was hoping that the German soldiers would find his name on the list. On several occasions, he says, he was turned away by German troops at the last moment. Sometimes they would look at the letter from the brigadier general and briefly discuss how to proceed, at other times they would turn him away directly. They never told him why.
On Wednesday, he chose not to keep going to the airport. Without written confirmation that he was on the evacuation list, it was simply too risky, he says.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do if the Germans leave me behind,” he says. “I’ll have to try to flee to a different country. Wherever I can. As fast as possible. My time is running out.”
It’s a situation in which many, many others in Afghanistan find themselves as well. And it’s not just those who worked for the Germans and other Western countries. With the return of the Taliban, artists, musicians and filmmakers are likewise terrified of what the future holds in store. In the last 20 years, they lived in the public eye to a greater degree than most and lived lives that the Taliban are disdainful of and fight against. Women and men appeared together on stage and in films – they touched each other and sang together.
When it became clear in spring that Western troops would be leaving the country, German artists with links to Afghanistan began assembling lists. By last week, some 1,500 endangered artists had been registered with the Foreign Ministry, though the vast majority of them stood almost no chance of being evacuated by the German military because they didn’t have a passport from Germany or another foreign country and couldn’t get through the Taliban checkpoints anyway.
Award-winning director Shahrbanoo Sadat is one of the few lucky exceptions, having managed to escape to Paris with help from Germany and France. “We have activated our contacts in the Foreign Ministry to get as many people as possible out of the country,” says Maria Köpf, head of the German Film Academy. “Unfortunately, many are still stuck in Kabul,” she says. “We are in touch with several contacts via WhatsApp and are hearing shocking things.”
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer
Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director of a theater in Berlin, has also been trying to help endangered Afghan actors and actresses. “The West was counting on these people when the focus was on building a democratic civil society. We can’t leave them in the lurch now,” he says.
Parliamentary President Schäuble said the same thing on Wednesday before a session of the Bundestag. “The desperation of the people at the airport in Kabul is heartbreaking,” he said.
But what will happen now that the airlift has come to an end? Is there still hope?
That is the focus of negotiations currently being conducted across several different channels, especially in Doha. The Taliban have an office in the Qatari capital, and ever since the group ascended to power in Afghanistan, it has increasingly developed into a kind of foreign ministry for the Islamists.
Western countries that have closed down their diplomatic missions in Kabul, in particular, are seeking contact with the new power holders, with diplomats lining up for an audience in Doha. Not only are important concessions from the Taliban at stake, but so too is a huge amount of money.
For Germany, Markus Potzel is on site, the former German ambassador in Afghanistan who speaks fluent Dari and has focused on this region of the world for decades. His counterpart in Qatar is Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, deputy of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. One of the many issues under discussion is how the evacuations might be allowed to continue.
With the airlift having come to an end, attention has shifted to overland routes. The Taliban in Doha are said to have promised that people will still be able to leave the country, but only if they are able to present both a passport and a visa. When it comes to Germany, that is a problem: The country stopped issuing visas in Afghanistan several years ago.
Afghans who want to flee from the Taliban, in other words, first need a visa from a neighboring country, such as Iran or Pakistan. Once they have arrived there, they would then have to apply for a visa for entry into Germany. It is a process in which a lot can go wrong – and it is anything but reliable.
Whether the Taliban will honor their promises? Everything is in flux. Diplomats describe the Islamists in Doha as being somewhere between arrogantly confident and desperately overwhelmed. One person familiar with the situation in Qatar says they seem to be both overconfident and helpless at the same time. Apparently, not even they thought the government would collapse so rapidly and relied on there being at least a few weeks of transition.
One of the last hopes for the West, as is so often the case, is cash. “The Taliban need our money,” it is said. But drunk as they are on victory, are they really capable of acting rationally? That will be one of the decisive questions in the coming weeks. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer says: “The talks cannot be allowed to break off. Without agreements with the Taliban, there will be no safe way out.” The government in Berlin is also considering sending diplomats to Kabul, potentially in cooperation with other European countries.
On Wednesday in the Bundestag, the chancellor sought to defend the government’s delayed action in Afghanistan and said it was now time to address the new realities in the country. “Our goal must be that of saving as much as possible of the change we have achieved in Afghanistan in the last 20 years,” Merkel said.
Still, it took only a few weeks after the withdrawal of the West for many of these changes to be nullified. From now on, all that’s left is preventing the worst and saving as many people as possible. Germany and the West have lost their credibility for the time being.
And yet, despite all of the suffering and fear, there are a few rays of hope. One of those is the story of Samira.
As with the rest of the people in this story, the 19-year-old’s name has been changed for this story. On Tuesday, she was sitting on the couch in her family’s apartment in Munich, wearing a headscarf, a dark-green dress and leggings. Her mother had put out cake and cookies. Samira’s hand was no longer shaking – on Monday, she had slept through almost the entire day.
In early August, she flew to Kabul with her brother and her mother to visit her grandmother one last time before the city fell to the Taliban. Then, things started changing faster than expected and they were stuck.
They went to the airport several times in an attempt to get out, but had no luck. The German special forces unit KSK got in touch with her, but her phone battery died, and the call broke off. The family made it to the airport one last time and a KSK soldier recognized her and had them brought inside the airport gates. The next morning, the three were flown out to Tashkent on board a Bundeswehr plane.
Samira says she is happy to be back home, adding that she still exchanges messages with the KSK soldier and that she is extremely grateful to him. The problem, she says, isn’t with the soldiers, it’s with the communication from the Foreign Ministry.
“We put ourselves in danger over and over again because nobody had a plan for how to get us to the airport,” she says. In the end, it was pure luck.