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Geopolitics

Ghosts Of Defeat Inside Deserted NATO Base In Afghanistan

The new Taliban commander shows reporters from Die Welt around the deserted Camp Marmal, the German army's former headquarters in Afghanistan.

Ghosts Of Defeat Inside Deserted NATO Base In Afghanistan

The scene at Camp Marmal a few months before German troops left the Afghan base

Alfred Hackensberger, Sebastian Backhaus, Ricardo Vilanova

Fries, beer and barbecued meat. That's what was on the menu every year when the German troops stationed at Camp Marmal celebrated German Unity Day. "That was always a special day," remembers Mohammed Sayed (names have been changed to protect identities), who worked as an interpreter for the German army.

"It was a big celebration," he says, with a wistful look. "Ambassadors from other countries came to visit, as well as governors from various provinces in Afghanistan." This year, at Camp Marmal near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, there was no Oct. 3 holiday celebration in sight.

Taliban current appeasement with West

On June 29, the German army finally withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving their largest military base, at the foot of the Hindu Kush, deserted. It was only two weeks before the Taliban took it over.

"During this time, when the base wasn't guarded, all the machinery was looted," says Taliban commander Abdullah Sajjad. The 30-year-old is now responsible for security on the former German base. He has a long beard and wears loose white clothing, a black vest and a black turban, which denotes his leadership role.

"Today," he says, "the camp is absolutely secure."

Journalists from Die Welt were among the first foreign press allowed to visit Camp Marmal, which was a key outpost for NATO operations in Afghanistan since 2005. "Our leaders have told us to treat you well," explains Sajjad. "You are now our friends, our brothers, who will always be welcome."

The Taliban have adopted this policy of appeasement so as not to frighten off the U.S. and Europe, with Afghanistan in urgent need of financial help from the West. The radical Islamists are putting on a moderate front, but behind the scenes their stranglehold is growing. They are reintroducing the punishment of chopping off hands. Girls are not allowed to go to school, while women are only allowed to work in exceptional circumstances.

Yet among the Taliban fighters at Camp Marmal, we can also feel a certain resentment with their reluctance to shake hands with us, the infidels.

Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif

Gregor Fischer/ZUMA

Frozen in time

Driving through the long, wide streets, the former German military base feels like a ghost town. A strange quiet reigns, broken now and again by birdsong, dogs barking or one of the few planes taking off or landing at the neighboring Mazar-i-Sharif airport.

Inside the buildings, everything is as the German army left it. The slow cookers in the kitchen are spotless. The chairs in the canteen are neatly stacked on the tables. The dinner trays have been cleaned and wrapped in cling wrap.

Tidied up, with typical German thoroughness.

If it weren't for the thick layer of dust on everything, you could be forgiven for thinking the German soldiers were about to return as soon as the lights are turned on. It is incredible how precisely everything has been tidied up, with typical German thoroughness. It looks like they wanted to hand the base over to its next occupants as smoothly as possible.

In the administration building, the keys are laid out in envelopes, carefully numbered and labeled. In the mailroom, empty containers bearing the German post emblem wait for new letters and packages. Cupboards hold printer cartridges, still in their original packaging. On the conference room tables, water bottles are carefully arranged in threes, next to whiteboard pens organized by color.

"Please clean up your rubbish at the end of the meeting," says the notice on the board, in German and English. In one room in the administration building, a large box lies on its side, with stationery strewn across the floor. "That wasn't us," Commander Sajjad assures us. "We haven't touched anything here."

Aerial view of the Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif

Marko Beljan via Unsplash

Billiard and roulette tables

On the base, there was plenty for the German soldiers to do in their free time. For security reasons, they weren't allowed to leave the base on personal trips, but they could play billiards, table tennis or foosball in the common rooms. If you draw back the curtains in the casino, you can see boxes of gambling chips for roulette.

Long-conserve food packaging lies on the floor — goulash with sour cream, tuna with lime and pepper. Above the bar is a drinks list written in chalk on the green board: there is everything from an espresso to a latte, Coke to Red Bull, Budweiser to König Ludwig Dunkel beer. The prices are very cheap. A coffee costs 60 or 70 cents, Fanta and Sprite are 40 cents. The most expensive beer costs 80 cents. Not exactly a stretch for soldiers who were paid a generous foreign service allowance, which made serving in Afghanistan attractive for many.

The gym at Camp Marmal is huge. Any soldier who found it too hot to exercise outside in summer could come here and enjoy the air conditioning. There are machines to work every muscle group: legs, biceps, chest, shoulders, stomach, glutes.

The Taliban members lift a few of the weights, just for fun. Throughout their 20-year guerrilla war against NATO and the Afghan government, they've never seen this kind of equipment.

German Armed Forces in Afghanistan

Maurizio Gambarini/ZUMA

Betrayal and abandonment

Camp Marmal is a symbol of a reality that still feels ungraspable, although it's already been consigned to history. The West has lost its fight against fundamentalist Islam and turned its back on Afghanistan and its people. But their forces have left behind so many traces that it looks like they could return tomorrow.

Mohammed, the interpreter for the German army, is torn. He still can't accept that they have left. He feels let down by people he saw as comrades and friends. They abandoned him to the Taliban, who've started hunting down locals who worked with NATO troops. He is only one of many hundreds who worked for the German army and have been left behind in Afghanistan.

"I get threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. I'm scared," says Mohammed. He feels that the German army has left him to fend for himself. "Betrayed, that's the word," he says,.

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