Amid fierce criticism, Germany stumbles in belated effort to rescue Afghan support personnel
BERLIN – As the Taliban entered Kabul last week, Marcus Grotian had to deliver a harsh message to hundreds of Afghans gathered in shelters in the capital: leave immediately and hide where you can.
With activists going door-to-door, having some 400 Afghans who had worked with the German military and other agencies locked up with their family members was too high a risk.
“Everyone was panicked, they were terrified,” said a 35-year-old Afghan who served as a translator alongside German troops in northern Afghanistan.
The government’s management of its “Ortskräfte”, or local staff, has drawn strong criticism in Germany. Ministries and officials have traded blame on why the state failed to act sooner in the evacuations, stepping up pressure ahead of the close elections in September.
While other coalition countries are also scrambling to carry out rescues, Germany’s process has been criticized for being particularly narrow in scope, initially accepting only those who had worked for its military or agencies in the over the past two years. Subcontractors were excluded.
“It is a shame that the government did not step up and do what was supposed to be its job,” said Grotian, who heads the Patenschaftsnetzwerk Afghanische Ortskräfte, a non-governmental organization in Germany that supports Afghans who helped the German forces.
Frustrated by the lack of official action as Germany withdrew its troops in July, Grotian had set up shelters to bring vulnerable people to Kabul. There they could, in theory, apply for German visas.
By the time the troops left, 2,400 visas had been issued for Afghans, covering several hundred staff then employed by German ministries and their families. After a public outcry and numerous protests by Afghan workers at German bases, the government extended its criteria to people it had employed from 2013.
This included Ahmad, 31, a senior interpreter who translated operations for the German military between 2009 and 2018.
He had been threatened by the Taliban because of this work. In 2016, he was the subject of a stamped arrest notice from the Taliban which described him as “dangerous” and cited his collaboration with coalition forces. “He shouldn’t be alive,” he said.
But instead of threats giving him a safe passage to Germany, he says they were the reason given for the non-renewal of his contract in the army. His continued presence on the base “would endanger security and order in the camp,” reads his termination letter. The military said this week it could not comment on a specific case.
When the Taliban approached Mazar-e Sharif in July, Ahmad traveled to Kabul with around 200 people from similar backgrounds. They crowded into safe houses, too scared to leave or even go out.
“This safe house was like a prison for us,” he said. “We were really scared.”
At least Kabul was slightly safer – and within reach of the German visa office, which then outsourced processing to the International Organization for Migration.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry said it could not provide figures on the number of visas issued since July 1, although Grotian does not know of any. The system, he argues, was put in place to keep people out instead of letting them in.
And although he worked for the Germans for almost a decade, it was the Dutch military who evacuated Ahmad to the Netherlands.
“I never had a Dutch contract, I just had friends and certificates,” he said.
Political will recently changed in Germany, but it was too late to get people out without a fight. Just hours after Grotian closed its safe houses, a location was visited by the Taliban and a landlord was questioned.
German special forces are now sent by helicopter to carry out risky rescue missions for those trapped.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas resisted calls for resignation but admitted that the situation had been “misjudged”. No one expected the Taliban to take over so quickly, he said.
Still, Grotian had been asking for the opportunity for weeks, writing to the Chancellery four times asking them to take over an expedited process. The visa system was “flexible like the Titanic,” he said.
The German Green Party unsuccessfully pushed a motion in the Bundestag in June to streamline the system. The party’s foreign policy spokesperson, parliamentarian Omid Nouripouri, describes the current situation as “shameful”.
Even after six days, he noted, German authorities were unable to give those seeking protection any formal letter to allow them access to the airport, the gates of which are being held. by American soldiers. “We are doing a bad job,” Nouripouri said.
Ahmad’s brother Mohammed, who translated for German forces between 2011 and 2013, is still awaiting his release. He has moved to a new apartment three times since arriving in Kabul last month.
Like most Afghans who worked for the Germans, he came from northern Afghanistan where the country’s troops were stationed. Staying in Kabul while trying to escape, especially with Grotian’s safe houses closed, involves significant money and risk.
A contact in Germany called him and told him to get to the airport for a flight.
“I went there, I saw the situation of the people, how badly they were treated,” Mohammed said, the Taliban firing directly at the crowd. His wife, 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son were with him, and his daughter cried amid the gunfire.
“I said to him, ‘No honey, they’re not shooting at us, they just want to separate the crowd,'” he said. “I don’t care about [the] cooking; I worked side by side with German officers. But for my family, it’s something dangerous. They haven’t seen anything like it. “
The gates of the airport remain crowded with crowds of undocumented people. For those who do, there is no plan to bring them in.
The 35-year-old Afghan translator who had stayed in the Grotian hideout worked only with German troops until 2009. He made four attempts to reach the airport – avoiding Taliban patrols – well that it cannot technically be evacuated to Germany.
“When you get caught, all that matters is whether you worked for a foreign agency,” he said.
Mohammed is now waiting for an official call from the Germans before risking another trip to the airport with his wife and children.
“They are leaving us behind,” he said. “It’s all the coalition forces, not just the Germans. But we worked with the Germans, we made their operational success. We were their languages.”