Escape from Afghanistan, Part II“Ground Attack! Ground Attack!”
One year ago, the government in Berlin had to prepare the harrowing, last-minute rescue of its diplomatic staff and hundreds of local hires in Afghanistan. When they arrived Kabul, Germany’s armed forces experienced chaos and despair.
By Matthias Gebauer und Konstantin von Hammerstein
02.09.2022, 10.02 Uhr
On Sunday, August 15, 2021, three U.S. helicopters fly 43 men and women from the German Embassy in Kabul out of the heavily secured Green Zone in the heart of the Afghanistan capital to the airport. It is a last-minute escape. Already that afternoon, Taliban fighters will force their way into the palace of the previously evacuated president.
The German representative Jan Hendrik van Thiel and the embassy’s security adviser, a man from the special federal police unit GSG-9 with the codename Fish, had prepared for the evacuation on their own – in opposition to sentiment from Berlin.
Plans by the German military, the Bundeswehr, for an evacuation mission are being urgently pushed forward on this weekend, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel giving her final OK on Sunday morning. The next morning, the first military planes take off for Afghanistan from the Wunstorf Air Base in Lower Saxony.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2022 (August 6th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
The meeting at American operational headquarters at the Kabul airport has almost concluded on this Monday morning, August 16, when all hell breaks loose. A German federal police officer who is responsible for the security of German envoy Jan Hendrik van Thiel bursts into the room. “Fish,” he says, “I have to speak with you.”
Outside, gunfire can be heard, sirens are howling and an announcement drones over and over again through the speakers: “Ground attack! Ground attack!” When Fish, the security adviser for the German Embassy, goes out into the hallway, he sees heavily armed U.S. soldiers sprinting to their positions. An intense firefight has broken out, but the German official doesn’t know what is going on. As if they were locked in, he and van Thiel find themselves stuck on this Monday morning in the Joint Operation Cell of the U.S. headquarters. And “cell” is the right word – it has no windows.
Just yesterday, German diplomats and their security personnel had to lay low for several hours in a protective room because the Taliban had attacked one of the airport gates. The Islamists have gathered on the large traffic circle on the road to the airport. Is this the start of a large-scale attack?
GSG-9 agent Fish orders the envoy to stay in the room no matter what and he then leaves the building with his colleague. It looks as though shooting is taking place across the entire airport premises, but the two men can’t tell who is firing at whom. The American headquarters lies between large buildings and container offices.
“The situation was scary,” Fish will later say. He, van Thiel and the personal security officer are stuck with the Americans in one part of the airport, but the rest of the German team, three members of the German foreign intelligence agency BND and the rest of the embassy personnel are cut off in another section. There is shooting everywhere, and the Americans aren’t allowing anyone to leave.
Diplomat Jan Hendrik van Thiel could have flown out on Sunday evening. He believes the Foreign Ministry in Berlin probably would have been quite pleased if he had. Foto: Christian O. Bruch / DER SPIEGEL
The Germans can do nothing but wait. And wait. The minutes slowly turn into hours. It is extremely hard on the nerves. Finally, an American general turns up and explains the situation. It’s not the Taliban who are advancing, but thousands of fleeing Afghans who are trying to get away from the Islamists. They have stormed the civilian part of the airport and spilled out onto the runway. Now, British and American troops are tying to hold the men and women back with warning shots fired over their heads.
When the shooting abates somewhat, Fish, his colleague and the envoy van Thiel run to Building 508, where the other Germans are taking shelter. The three BND agents are sitting on the ground and destroying their computers, so they don’t fall into the wrong hands. Heavily armed German federal police officers are in the hallways, along with special forces from the Czech Republic, Spain and Italy.
The mood is tense. If the building is stormed, they will have little choice but to fire live ammunition at unarmed civilians.
On the way to Building 508, Fish sees the combat helicopters the Americans are flying low over the tarmac to try to push back the crowds. And he still has the U.S. general’s voice in his ear, who told him that the airport was now closed for the foreseeable future – meaning that no German aircraft can land.
From van Thiel’s perspective, the first two days at the airport went just fine. He has achieved quite a bit since the Americans flew the 43 Germans to the airport in their helicopters. As he would later recall, he gave his people permission to fly out to Doha on an American aircraft that same evening. He could have flown out too – and he thinks that headquarters in Berlin would even have approved of the move.
But how can he leave when he promised his embassy’s Afghan staffers just three or four days ago that he would never leave them in the lurch? Instead, he decides that he has to do all he can to help these people, who spent years working for the Germans, get out of the country.
He has, however, already sent home a few of his people from the embassy team. They wanted to stay, there were tears, but he realized that they had reached their wits’ end. Now, the team is down to 12: three diplomats, six federal police officers and the trio of BND agents.
Kabul, August 18, 2021: The situation at the North Gate escalates. With blows and warning shots, soldiers try to push people back and widen the evacuation corridor.
Van Thiel heads over to the Americans, to the U.S. ambassador and military leaders, to try to negotiate landing slots for the German planes. But the Americans make it clear that only U.S. and British planes will be allowed to land. And, as van Thiel will say later, he even understood their reasoning.
The Americans are doing their best to establish an air bridge to Doha with their gigantic C-17 transport planes. The aircraft of other countries would only get in the way and take up valuable tarmac space – especially since their citizens could just as easily be flown out with the U.S. planes.
But van Thiel remains stubborn and ultimately, he says, the U.S. gives in, allowing planes to land that are already on the approach to the airport. The German envoy applies a rather generous interpretation to that permission. The first two A400M cargo planes belonging to the German Air Force are still refueling in Baku, Azerbaijan, but they are, after all, enroute from Germany. Not quite on the approach, but close enough.
Then van Thiel learns that the Americans want to open up an additional airport gate. “OK,” says the German envoy, “that will have to be our gate.” He needs a task for the Bundeswehr so that German troops will even be let in. He goes back and forth with U.S. officials before they finally reach a deal: The Americans will process their citizens and local hires at the North Gate while the Germans will set up a line to process people from all other countries.
All he needs now is a place to lodge the 240 Bundeswehr soldiers who will hopefully soon be arriving. The Americans are unable to help, but then, a diplomat from the Netherlands suddenly gets in touch. The country moved its embassy to the airport several days earlier. “Jan,” the Dutch envoy asked him, “do you want our building? We are flying out.”
That evening, Fish gets a call from the adjutant of General Jens Arlt, the commander of the evacuation operation. “We are in the air,” the officer says, “and we need permission to land.” “You can forget about it,” Fish responds, according to his recollection of the conversation, “no landing permission is being given.” “But we need one. We are circling.” Fish tells him what is going on at the airport: complete chaos. How can any planes land?
Arlt’s plane spends the next several hours circling above Kabul until it begins running out of fuel. At 10 p.m., “German Air Force 309” has to turn around and head for Uzbekistan. Then, Fish receives another call, this time from a man who goes by the alias “Tobias,” a lieutenant colonel in the KSK special forces. He had been planning to go fishing in Brandenburg, but here he was in a second German plane circling above Kabul. Given that both are in the special forces – Fish with the GSG-9 and Tobias with the KSK – they know each other.
Tobias has just spoken on the phone with a frustrated General Arlt, who is on the way back to Tashkent. Tobias would say later that because he was now the senior-most commanding officer, Arlt had transferred authority to him of the men and women on board the flight. He signed off with a hearty “Good luck!”
Kabul, August 18, 2021: The crowd in front of the North Gate continues to grow. Security forces try to de-escalate the situation – initially with words. Video: Christoph Klawitter
ln the end, Tobias is a bit more fortunate than the general. His plane is allowed to land shortly before it, too, would have run out of fuel. The runway is still not illuminated, and the pilots don’t know if it is clear, so as soon as they land, they hit the brakes so hard that they immediately heat up to over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Within seconds, the inside of the plane becomes unbearably hot. Later, back in Tashkent, all 14 tires of the A400M have to be replaced.
Fish is waiting at the parking slot. Midnight passes before he finally sees the giant transport plane taxiing toward him. In the darkness, he can see the wheels glowing red – the brakes.
When the ramp lowers, armed soldiers rush out of the plane and establish a security ring. Their weapons are also pointed at Fish and his welcoming committee. “Other direction please,” Fish calls out. “We’re the good guys!” He then greets his old comrade, Tobias.
Lieutenant Marc-André Hinzmann is one of the soldiers who arrives with the cargo plane, and he begins wandering around the airport with his weapon, helmet and backpack. He walks past empty storage halls and abandoned buildings. Past cars that are standing around, their doors open and windshields either shattered or pierced by bullets.
It is the middle of the night, but oppressive heat is still radiating from the concrete. The young lieutenant sees clothing on the car seats and cups still half full, looking as though the coffee is still warm.
Some of the vehicles’ trunks are open, but it looks as though nobody had enough time to take the bags along with them. How great must the fear have been for these people to leave their last possessions behind?
Hinzmann would later say that the images were familiar. He had seen the U.S. television series “The Walking Dead.” The Kabul airport reminded him of the world following the zombie apocalypse.
At 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning, hundreds of Afghans have gathered in front of the airport’s North Gate. Young men are holding babies in the air to attract attention. They are yelling, pushing, waving their passports around along with other documents. Women, children and older men are ruthlessly shoved aside. Everybody wants to find their way into a plane so they can get out of Kabul.
The masses are wedged in on a strip between the high cement wall surrounding the airport and Russian Road. The arterial is being patrolled by Taliban fighters armed with Kalashnikovs on the beds of pickups to ensure that traffic isn’t blocked.
The steel doors of North Gate are still open, and a line of U.S. Marines is trying to hold the crowd back. They are being assisted by men from the notorious Unit 01 “Cobra” of the Afghan secret service NDS.
The CIA has promised members of this unit that they will be flown out with their families to the U.S. once the evacuation is complete. In exchange, they are now doing the dirty work for the Americans and their allies.
They fire their Kalashnikovs over the heads of the crowd or shove people back from the gate with the butts of their rifles. When that doesn’t do the job, they throw stun grenades into the crowd. They are using so much ammunition that a pick-up truck has to replenish their supplies every few hours.
Chris Klawitter, a German businessman, is standing in the processing line behind the gate on this morning. Embassy personnel have handed him a list containing hundreds of names of German citizens and Afghan local hires. Perhaps Klawitter will be able to get some of them onto the airport premises.
Klawitter himself could have flown out to Doha on Sunday evening in a U.S. military plane, but he had other ideas. He offered his help to German officials and van Thiel gratefully accepted.
There aren’t many Germans who know Kabul as well as Klawitter does. A native of Hamburg, he has been living in the Afghan capital for two decades, earning his money as a logistics service provider for Western militaries. He knows everybody who is anybody in Kabul and speaks fluent Persian – and also speaks the Dari dialect, which is spoken in Kabul.
As a private citizen, logistics expert Klawitter takes on one of the most dangerous jobs the Germans have to offer in Kabul. Foto: Christian O. Bruch /Laif
“Just to make one thing clear: I’m not doing this for money,” he will later recall saying to van Thiel. He says he just wanted to help. So, this giant man with a graying beard is now the only German standing at the North Gate in the oppressive sun without a helmet, weapon or protective vest, sandwiched between soldiers, police officers and secret service agents.
A private citizen is now taking on the most dangerous job the Germans have available for the next few days. Klawitter spends most of his time in front of the gate between U.S. Marines and members of the Afghan “Cobra” unit – right where German officials and soldiers aren’t actually allowed to be because it is too risky. On this Tuesday, he is able to get 150 people into the airport, including citizens of Germany, France and Belgium and an Afghan woman who works as a public prosecutor.
Berlin has now become more sensitive to the problem, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. At this point, the German government has spent months whitewashing the situation in Afghanistan and ignoring all of the warnings from its embassy in Kabul. Even with the end approaching quickly, ministries in Berlin still couldn’t agree on which German local hires should be helped and which should be abandoned.
And now, right in the middle of the German election campaign, the global spotlight is suddenly focused on Kabul. Those who hope to have a political future will have to prove that they are up to managing the crisis – which dramatically increases the risk of overreactions.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has a habit of ignoring problems. In the preceding weeks, the Social Democrat hadn’t spoken a single time with his envoy in Kabul to get his personal view of the situation there. Now, in front of the rolling cameras, he has to admit that mistakes have been made. “We appraised the situation inaccurately,” he says on Monday. “It can’t be sugarcoated.” In comments to DER SPIEGEL a short time later, he will cast the blame on the BND, saying that the German foreign intelligence agency hadn’t thought that the Taliban would be able to overrun Kabul.
Maas is fighting for his political survival. In an interview with the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung several months later, he will say that he offered SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz his resignation during the evacuation operation. But the two of them, Maas told the paper, decided that resigning at that moment was the wrong thing to do.
Afghan refugees climb atop a plane after storming the Kabul airport. Foto: WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP
After admitting his failures, Maas is a changed man. Suddenly, the German foreign minister is no longer delegating the Afghanistan problem to his state secretary, instead frequently leading the daily crisis meeting at the Foreign Ministry himself.
His cabinet colleague from the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, frequently joins the meetings via video link. She is spending most of her days and nights in her office at the ministry together with military leaders and her closest political advisers. Every now and then, one of them will say: “The situation calls for cake!” whereupon a delivery service will bring over a large order of pizza or cake, which the minister often distributes herself.
Now, with time already having run out, the government suddenly can’t get enough people out of Kabul. By this point, only 90 Germans have officially reported to the Foreign Ministry that they are in Afghanistan.
On Sunday, August 15, Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan Presidential Palace. Foto: Zabi Karimi / AP
In fact, though, several hundred German citizens are in the country when the Taliban take power, most of them native Afghans who have a German passport and live in Kabul. They have never reported to the embassy since they were living in their home country, after all. Now, though, they are placing calls by the minute to the Foreign Ministry’s hotline, which is rapidly overloaded. Quickly, people from all over the ministry are pulled in to answer the phones, including attachés-in-training from the diplomat training center. But it’s not enough. It takes many callers several hours to get through, if they do at all. And if their calls are answered, they are frequently told to have patience and that someone will get back in touch with them – which never happens.
The list of German local hires is also growing by the day. For months, the Development Ministry had resisted helping its employees get out of the country. But now, the ministry surprisingly announces that it has over a thousand helpers who now want to flee the country. Together with their families, the ministry’s list is suddenly over 4,300 names long.
Maas, Kramp-Karrenbauer and their staffs are being bombarded with new names of people who must urgently be rescued. Parliamentarians are calling, former ministers, CEOs, former military officers, NGOs, exile associations and even private citizens. It seems as though in this week in August, every German in the country knows somebody in Afghanistan who needs help.
Most of the Afghans are polite, many are desperate, and some are impertinent. They swear, beg and even issue threats.
The mobile phone numbers of the Germans in Kabul also begin spreading rapidly among those seeking help. Van Thiel, Fish, Arlt, the diplomats, police offers and soldiers at the Kabul airport – all of them are flooded with calls, their mobile phones ringing constantly, even at night.
Officials in Berlin have long since lost a complete overview of the list of names – if they ever had one in the first place. The result is that the Foreign Ministry is continually sending new lists to Kabul, many of them not even alphabetized.
The Afghan practice in which family names are frequently not used doesn’t make things any easier, nor do the different spellings. In theory, a situation could arise in which the Bundeswehr has a “Rauf” on its list, the Development Ministry a “Raouf,” the Foreign Ministry a “Rawoof” and the police a “Ravo” – and they all refer to one and the same person. How are the soldiers at the airport gate supposed to know who to let in and who to keep out?
In Kabul, meanwhile, many people have started thinking that the crisis task force in Berlin doesn’t really understand what is happening at the airport.
When Lieutenant Hinzmann of the military police emerges from his accommodations on Tuesday morning following a short night, he sees the mountains behind the airport and the high-rise buildings. Later, he will say that he didn’t have a good feeling about that day. If there’s a sniper in one of those windows, he thinks, that’s it. The people down below are served up on a platter.
Hinzmann reconnoiters. The North Gate, where he and other members of the military police are charged with registering refugees, is a chaotic collection of processing lines, cement walls and earthen dikes, on top of which snipers from the U.S. Marines are lying.
Drivers trying to reach the airport are first directed through one of three processing points. The Americans have assigned the Germans to monitor the one in the middle, the only one that is covered. This is where Hinzmann will set up his registry. On this Tuesday morning, he walks down the road until it begins curving after 80 or 90 meters. He can already hear the din of the people outside the wall.
Hinzmann walks between two high cement walls through an additional checkpoint leading to a gigantic steel gate, the North Gate, which marks the entrance to the military section of the airport. He clambers over broken palettes, stepping across garbage and filth. Trash is no longer being collected and in the coming 10 days, the airport will transform into a stinking garbage dump.
For Lieutenant Marc-André Hinzmann, the scenes are reminiscent of the American television series “The Walking Dead.” Foto: Cristian O. Bruch / DER SPIEGEL
The lieutenant pushes his way through a narrow gap in the steel gate to the outside. The U.S. Marines don’t like it when too many foreigners collect in front of the gate, but Hinzmann is an officer and the American troops here are just grunts or non-commissioned officers, so they allow the German to remain there, even though it is dangerous.
Hinzmann is shocked by what he sees. The Afghan troops who are guarding the gate with the Americans have fashioned whips out of bicycle tires and belts, using them to push back the masses of people. He watches as they strike a woman in the head with their Kalashnikovs and ram the butt of their rifles into the ribs of a small boy.
The gunfire is constant. Sometimes, the Afghan troops fire so close over the heads of the masses that their hair is ruffled. “It’s strange,” says Hinzmann, “how quickly the people grew accustomed to the gunfire.” Like back home at the gun range, where you quickly stop hearing the din. He hopes that the shots are only coming from the Americans and their Afghan helpers, but he’s far from certain.
Hinzmann has stepped outside the gate on this morning so that he can provide his troops with a realistic assessment of the situation. It’s not something he can delegate; he has to do it himself. The military police have to understand the environment in which they will be operating in the coming days – where it is safe to go, and where it is not.
The young lieutenant finds himself standing among the U.S. Marines and the Afghan troops, with a barrier of razor wire in front of them, along with hundreds, or even thousands, of desperate people – when he suddenly sees a woman lying on the ground. She has probably just fallen, but she isn’t moving.
Hinzmann runs over to her, pushing his rifle onto his back, and tries to pull her out of the crowd with the help of other soldiers. It’s not easy, because the soldiers must first make their way through the razor-wire barricade. When they finally make it, one of the men feels for the woman’s pulse before saying: “She’s dead.” And that is how Hinzmann’s first overseas mission begins. With a dead woman.
Late that afternoon, the general is finally able to land in Kabul. He walks down the ramp at the back of the plane, with a camera team from the Bundeswehr following him. Arlt is in a hurry, having arrived far later than he had wanted to. As the commander of the evacuation operation, he should have arrived in the night with the first plane to Kabul, but it was unable to land, so he was stuck in Tashkent for far too long.
Still, he was able to sleep for a few hours, in a sleeping bag on the floor next to the baggage claim carousel in the airport terminal the Uzbeks had made available to the Germans. Arlt has been on the phone since 6 a.m., speaking to mission headquarters in Potsdam, the Defense Ministry in Berlin and officials in Kabul.
Commander Jens Arlt is frustrated and disappointed when the A400 military aircraft he is flying in is unable to land and has to turn around and fly to Tashkent. Foto: Christian O. Bruch / DER SPIEGEL
The Foreign Ministry’s crisis response team (KUT), a small team of experienced soldiers and diplomats, was also briefly stranded in Tashkent. Without their help, Hinzmann’s team of military police and van Thiel’s group of embassy staff wouldn’t have had a chance. By the time they arrived in Kabul, the KUT had spent some time while in the Uzbek capital doing their best to bring the evacuation list up to date.
All of them are eagerly awaited in Kabul. Van Thiel welcomes Arlt as he steps off the plane. The diplomat will later describe their meeting with a bit of light irony, saying the two looked deep into each other’s eyes, the general and the envoy, and it was “love at first sight.” He grins as he recounts the story.
The two immediately abandoned all pretenses to formality, calling each other by their first names, and quickly becoming the Dream Team of the evacuation operation. When they call in by phone from Kabul to the daily crisis team meeting in Berlin, they are like twins. Participants in the meetings will later say it sometimes wasn’t even clear which of them was speaking at any given moment, Jens or Jan? The mini fractures in this alliance will only later become visible.
The embassy’s security official, GSG-9 agent Fish, is also immediately able to establish a rapport with the general. Arlt, he says, told him that the Defense Ministry in Berlin had given him two clear instructions as he left. First, he is to ensure that no plane leaves Kabul without passengers on board, and second, he is to produce plenty of images of full planes.
Fish suspects he knows the source of the instructions. All hell broke loose in Berlin when it became known that the first Bundeswehr transport plane flew out the previous evening with just seven people on board: five Germans, someone from the Netherlands and a local hire from Afghanistan. At the same time, a photo of a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 was making the rounds, full to the gills with 640 Afghans being ferried to Qatar. The question everyone was asking: Why are the Germans such failures?
U.S. Marines and support troops with the Afghan intelligence service’s “Cobra” unit rescue a child at the North Gate of the airport. Foto: Christoph Klawitter
In truth, they did all they could in the brief window of time available to them. Whereas the Americans have been operating at the airport with thousands of soldiers for several days, Germany has only had 13 people on the ground since Sunday. The personnel and equipment necessary for the evacuation operation first has to be flown in by the Bundeswehr. And on Monday, it is unclear for much of the day whether a German plane can even land in Kabul. When the second plane is surprisingly given clearance to land late in the evening, the situation at the airport is still so chaotic that van Thiel and Fish can be happy that they even have seven people ready to fly out.
And the Americans are pushing. The Germans have to move fast, with several U.S. military planes circling above Kabul waiting to land and the situation on the ground not getting any more secure. In order to be able to take off again quickly in an emergency, the German pilots are ordered to keep the engines of their A400M running. With the props spinning, the engines roaring and the stench of the kerosine hanging in the air, the plane has to be loaded as fast as possible. It must be airborne again after just 30 minutes.
Frustration among the Germans is significant. “Fuck!” yells KSK agent Tobias right after landing. “You only have seven people here for the flight back?” He will later say he immediately knew what the headlines would look like.
Since Arlt’s arrival in Kabul on Tuesday evening, the evacuation operation has been dominated by the Bundeswehr. With over 240 men and women, they make up the lion’s share of the German contingent, and the military’s media machine is also pressing ahead. The goal is to ensure that the mission receives the attention and credit it is due. It is no accident that the general had a Bundeswehr camera team with him when he landed.
But Arlt has a different set of concerns on this evening. The officer has arrived late, and he has to make up for lost time. His plane is hardly on the ground before he rushes across the airport to visit the Turkish commander who is in charge of food, lodging and supplies, as Arlt would later say. Adding that the commander no longer had an adequate overview of the situation given the general chaos.
The German general then meets with the British and Americans, where he runs into an old acquaintance. As a young KSK officer, Arlt had served together in Afghanistan with Chris Donahue, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division. The two were both special forces soldiers and have great trust in one another, which will prove helpful in the current situation. Arlt is even able to be present when Donahue confers with the U.S. president a few days later.
In the coming days, the airport will increasingly become a “Woodstock of Special Forces,” as the soldiers would joke. Most of the countries seeking to evacuate their citizens are now sending special forces to Kabul. It is like a vast reunion, with many of the men having met previously during joint exercises and missions. It makes cooperation in this extremely challenging environment easier.
Upon arrival, the German commando soldiers immediately took on the same task being performed by the airborne troops, namely escorting refugees to the waiting airplanes. But on Wednesday, August 18, Arlt decides that he needs the KSK men for a different mission.
Read Part I and Part III of the series