German soldiers in Afghanistan feel under appreciated and overlooked
Aside from their struggles against attacks, German soldiers seek acknowledgement for their efforts as peacekeepers and community builders.
New Dehli/Kabul -- Five years ago, when the German army began its mission in northern Afghanistan, the region was regarded as one of the country's safest.
Now, the soldiers run the daily risk of "being caught in an explosive or being shot at," as one officer put it. During the last year, the security situation has deteriorated not only in the north, but all across Afghanistan.
At the same time, Germany's parliament extended the mandate for the German mission to Afghanistan on Thursday by 14 months, instead of the usual 12, in order to bridge a gap caused by upcoming German elections in autumn 2009.
Scheduled around the same time, the Afghan presidential election, which is likely to shape the country's future for years to come, is equally likely to further escalate violence in the coming year.
As voter registration started last week, Taliban spokesman Kari Jussif Ahmadi warned the population against registering, saying it was a "waste of time," as the militants were set to prevent the election from happening. "More than half of the country is in our hands and we will not let it happen," he said.
Even though the Taliban failed to prevent the election in 2004 -- despite grand announcements to the contrary -- they are believed to be strong enough to severely disrupt the run-up to the 2009 election.
A Western expert predicts the Taliban will succeed in preventing people from voting in volatile areas in the south and east, regions populated by the Pushtun tribes, the main source of Taliban recruits.
As a result of the low turnout in the last election, large parts of the Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, refuse to accept the election results and are turning their backs on the Kabul government in increasing numbers.
The international community hopes to prevent such an outcome by all means, making the security of the present election one of the most important tasks in 2009.
The German troops within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will also play a role in training Afghan security forces: A process that must be hastened after being pursued too hesitantly for years.
There is no doubt that this will be dangerous. Even today, the duty of the 4,500 German soldiers is a far cry from the beginning of the mission, when ISAF troops operated as peacekeepers.
Soldiers at the German camp in the northern province of Kunduz nicknamed the full moon "rocket weather," because of the many attacks raining down on them by moonlight.
In September, a German soldier was killed in an attack.
"You have an odd feeling when you leave the camp on a mission," said an officer, who declined to give his name. "It sensitizes you but also creates a distance to the population. Just being present, just walking down to the bazaar, like we did two, three years ago, that's not possible any more."
Many soldiers believe that the German population does not fully appreciate their work, which only makes headline news when attacks occur. "The soldiers want more interest in Germany, and that there is not just a focus (on them) when something [negative] happens," the German Bundeswehr in Afghanistan said in a statement. "More appreciation of the efforts here would be welcome -- after all, we have had some successes (in building roads and providing access to electricity). Besides, our soldiers here can die in the name of Germany."