German peacekeepers plunged into Afghan war
In Germany, where military operations still stir up controversy because of the country's wartime past, the government still describes the mission in Afghanistan as peacekeeping.
Kunduz -- A year ago northern Afghanistan was relatively peaceful, but German forces deployed as peacekeepers have been dragged into a war that is increasingly unpopular back home ahead of elections.
Under a scorching September sun, an armoured convoy returns from patrol and troops breathe a collective sigh of relief as they switch back onto a sprawling military base of 1,100 German troops in the northern city of Kunduz.
"We have reached a point where half of our patrols are attacked," says the head of patrol, Sergeant Peter T. The German army bans troops in theatre from divulging their full names for security reasons.
"We had no attack today. We were lucky," he said.
In Germany, where military operations still stir up controversy because of the country's wartime past, the government describes the mission in Afghanistan as peacekeeping.
But Captain Thomas K, who commands an infantry company in the increasingly dangerous Kunduz province on the Afghan border with Tajikistan, is frank: "We have crossed over into a war situation."
So far this year -- which has gone on record as the deadliest for the more than 100,000 US and NATO forces serving in Afghanistan -- four German soldiers have been killed and dozens wounded.
Rockets slam into the Kunduz base. This month German troops called in a US air strike on hijacked oil tankers that the Afghan government determined killed around 100 people, including 30 civilians and 69 Taliban fighters.
Germany is the third largest troop contributor behind Britain and the United States with more than 4,200 forces on the ground, according to Berlin.
Although Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, who are expected to win elections Sunday, and their allied parties support the Afghan mission, pollsters say around 60 percent of Germans want troops to return home.
"The situation has deteriorated dramatically in Kunduz," said Thomas.
"Last year, we could still go out in normal vehicles. Now we have to take armoured ones every time.
"Attacks on German soldiers have increased massively, the number of wounded as well, and above all direct contact with insurgents."
Since July 10, German infantry have been involved in 15 clashes -- three of which were so intense they lasted several hours, Thomas added.
"We went out three times to back up troops in difficulty knowing from the outset we were going to be fired on. This didn't happen often to the Germans in Afghanistan," said the officer.
Since June, the previously restrictive rules of engagement have changed on orders from Berlin. From now on "if someone fires on us, he should expect to be killed," said Colonel Ulrich P, in charge of training Afghan troops.
"We retaliate with everything we have. That's combat," said one German officer on condition of anonymity.
The reasons for degradation are numerous and complex. Inter-ethnic tensions, conflict linked to property disputes and the opening of a new international supply line dissecting the province has attracted rebels and bandits.
The tempo of military operations has also stepped up recently, particularly in July with the launch of Operation Adler (Eagle) which was designed to secure Kunduz for presidential and provincial elections on August 20.
"The Taliban have brought men into the region. I also think that Taliban commanders under pressure from intensified American and British operations in the south have come here," the officer said.
German troops say the enemy has also become increasingly sophisticated.
"The insurgents are in the process of learning. Their attacks are becoming more and more elaborate," said Peter T.
Captain Thomas K concurs: "The insurgents are learning more and more from their mistakes, they watch how we react and adapt. We have to remain unpredictable and change our tactics all the time."
On the base airstrip, a young soldier, cigarette dangling from his lips, sighs while waiting for a plane. "If only the plane was going back to Germany," he said, "I'd know I'd got through."