Escape from Afghanistan, Part I“We’re Destroying the IT. Have a Nice Sunday”
Documents are burned, computers mutilated and 15 Mercedes SUVs are destroyed with a forklift: The fall of Kabul caught the Germans by surprise – and politicians in Berlin proved unequal to the moment.
02.09.2022, 10.01 Uhr
On Monday morning, at six, the earth begins shaking. The floor sways, the walls quiver, but Chris Klawitter doesn’t get nervous easily. The businessman from Hamburg has lived in Kabul for two decades. He knows what earthquakes feel like.
But this time it’s different, the shaking doesn’t stop. Klawitter runs outside. He has spent the night in an accommodation container located in the military part of the airport. As he will recall later, the embassy called him at just after 3 p.m. on the previous afternoon: “Chris, come to the airport right away. We’re evacuating.”
The call didn’t come as a surprise. On Sunday morning, Klawitter was still in the city. His American principals didn’t initially want to let him go, but they ultimately relented, even providing him with Georgian bodyguards. There were long lines of people waiting outside the banks in the capital and gunfire could be heard. On the way back, he saw armed Afghan policemen who had thrown away their uniforms and were now fleeing in their pickup trucks toward the airport.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 31/2022 (July 30th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
The Taliban are on the advance, and now Klawitter feels the earth shaking. He looks across the runway to the civilian part of the airport. What he sees there in the distance in the morning haze frightens him. A huge wall seems to be moving. “Oh, shit!” he recalls thinking, “the earthquake is so strong it is moving walls.”
But it’s not a wall, nor is it an earthquake. It’s people. Children, women, men, thousands of desperate Afghans sprinting to the runway and causing the ground to shake. Klawitter feels fear creeping up inside him. He has endured a lot in Afghanistan: He has been shot at, experienced explosions, but this is horrifying. He doesn’t want to be crushed or overrun by desperate people fleeing the Taliban.
He sees armored combat vehicles driving up. British and American Marines are taking up positions on his side of the runway. They throw themselves to the ground and open fire, warning shots over the heads of the oncoming masses.
Klawitter has seen enough. He runs back into the container, gathers his things and runs the few hundred meters to the compound where the German Embassy is housed.
The diplomats there are not alone. The building also provides shelter to officers with the Federal Police and special forces from the Czech Republic, Spain and Italy. Now, the heavily armed men are standing in the corridors as they prepare for the worst. They aren’t equipped to bring crowds under control – they only have live ammunition. If the crowds storm the building, they will have to fire at desperate, unarmed men, women and children.
Hamburg businessman Chris Klawitter, who lived for two decades in Kabul, offered his help to the Germans. He spent days standing in front of the airport gates helping to evacuate German citizens and local hires. Foto: Christian O Bruch / DER SPIEGEL
On this Monday morning in August, Klawitter has no idea that the next 11 days will change his life. Nothing will be the same afterward. He has spent the past few years importing armored vehicles for the U.S. Army into Afghanistan. Now, he will play a critical role in helping Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, evacuate thousands of people from the Afghan capital.
He would tell his story a few months later at a café in Hamburg. He brings along hundreds of photos and videos from Kabul airport on his tablet (some of which DER SPIEGEL is now publishing). The conversation begins at noon and only ends long after darkness has fallen.
It is quite possible that Klawitter will end up testifying soon as a witness before the investigative committee in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, which hopes to cast light on the 11 dramatic days in Kabul and the events that led up to them. Just like all the diplomats, soldiers, agents with the German foreign intelligence agency, the BND, Federal Police officers and ministers with whom DER SPIEGEL has met in recent months.
Many are telling their stories in public for the first time, and some have asked that we not publish their real names to protect their identities. DER SPIEGEL compared their accounts with those of others involved and obtained corroboration of verbatim quotations from the persons concerned, and also evaluated confidential memos, crisis team minutes and internal email correspondence. Their stories now make it possible to reconstruct the German chapter of the Kabul drama that kept the world on tenterhooks last August.
It is a story of human misery and despair, of betrayal, violence and hope, of misjudgments, misunderstandings and political failures. It is one of vanity and resentment, of ignorance and loss of touch with reality, but also of humanity, courage, helpfulness and quiet heroism. Above all, it is the story of a human disaster.
It begins two weeks before August 16, 2021, the day that Klawitter wakes up in the morning at Kabul airport to find the earth shaking – at a time when the Afghan reality suddenly comes dangerously close to the Germans.
On the evening of August 3, the German envoy in Kabul, Jan Hendrik van Thiel, is sitting with two journalists by the embassy pool. Van Thiel has been in his post since mid-July. There is no ambassador – the old one is gone and the new one hasn’t yet arrived. As such, van Thiel heads the German representation as chargé d’affaires. He knows the country well: Around 10 years earlier, the experienced crisis diplomat headed a civil-military reconstruction team in Faizabad in the northeast.
Suddenly, as he is sitting with his two guests by the pool, a huge explosion rocks the embassy. According to van Thiel’s account, the sky is lit up by a fireball and gunfire erupts nearby. Kalashnikovs, machine guns, the occasional grenade launcher. It would continue for several hours.
An alarm is blared out over a loudspeaker and van Thiel runs into the protected living container with his guests. In their operations room, the Federal Police officers charged with securing the site tune in to the livestream from the American observation blimp that hovers day and night over the highly secured Green Zone, with its many embassies.
The blimp’s surveillance cameras have zoomed in on one of the Afghan defense minister’s homes. A man, apparently one of the attackers, can be seen on the balcony being shot at by security forces. The minister is alive, not having been there at the time of the attack, but there are at least four dead.
Van Thiel urgently needs to go to his office to send a message to Berlin, but his bodyguards fear stray bullet fire. He overrules their concerns and runs across the courtyard to the office container and sends a short email to the German Foreign Ministry (“Current situation difficult to assess fully/Embassy fine”). It doesn’t take long for the answer to come; Berlin wants to set up another conference call that evening.
Antje Leendertse, a high-level official at the Foreign Ministry is on the phone. Van Thiel would later recall her questioning that there had even been an attack in Kabul? “But it hasn’t been reported in the newsfeed,” Leendertse says. From a German perspective, in other words, the event essentially hasn’t happened. The diplomat has trouble maintaining his composure.
Next door he can hear machine gun fire, a bomb has gone off a few hundred meters from the embassy, he has seen the fireball, himself, and Berlin doubts that anything at all has happened? That’s when one of Leendertse’s staffers intervenes. “It is in the newsfeed, and Bild has already reported it,” she says, referring to the mass-circulation German tabloid. That cleared things up, van Thiel would later say. If it was in the newsfeed, then it must have happened.
The fact that Berlin doesn’t always seem to know what is going on is something that people in Kabul have grown used to. The crisis response center of the German Foreign Ministry will sometimes call in the middle of the night to ask if everything is OK after an attack – involving a bomb that has gone off in Kandahar, some 500 kilometers away. Of course it’s not always easy to keep track of everything from such a distance.
For van Thiel, though, the phone call from Leendertse represents a new level of ignorance. The Taliban has managed to carry out a complex attack on a high-value target despite all the checkpoints and safeguards in the center of the capital. It takes the security forces hours to recapture the buildings. The government in Kabul will no longer be able to recover from this. Don’t they understand in Berlin what this attack means? Or, even worse, are they not willing to understand?
The Pippi Longstocking Principle, or PLP for short, is described by psychologists and management trainers as a state of persistent denial of reality. It owes its name to the German lyrics of the anthem of the television show: “I make the world as I like it, diddle diddle di!”
In the summer of 2021, half of Berlin seems to be suffering from PLP. From the government’s perspective, after all, there are reasons to ignore developments in Kabul. A general election is on the horizon, with Germans preparing to elect Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor, and the Afghanistan debacle isn’t a winning issue on the campaign trail. Perhaps they’ll get lucky and things won’t head south until after the Sept. 26 vote.
Or perhaps it is denial born of the fact that Berlin simply isn’t ready for Kabul to fall into the hands of the Taliban. For months, the four ministries in question – foreign, defense, interior and development – have been unable to agree on which local Afghan employees should be allowed to come to Germany or how.
As the Taliban seizes one province after the other in Afghanistan, file folders are passed up and down the official channels. Memos are composed, signed off on and filed away. Working groups meet, there are conference calls, rounds of coordination and meetings involving members of different ministries. On two occasions, Chancellor Angela Merkel grows fidgety and urges her cabinet to finally reach an agreement. But the Chancellery doesn’t follow up later, and nothing ultimately happens.
At the North Gate of the Kabul airport, U.S. soldiers and their Afghan allies use smoke grenades to try to push back the crowd. Foto: Christoph Klawitter
For a few weeks, the idea of flying local hires and German nationals out on charter planes is floated. The chancellor thinks it’s a good idea, but then she disappears on vacation. Meeting after meeting is held, but no progress is made. The Interior Ministry busies itself with preparing the visas, the Foreign Ministry addresses the costs. In the end, it’s a matter of chartering just two jets. But by the time they are actually ready to fly, the Taliban have long since taken over power in Kabul.
And then there’s Horst Seehofer. As recently as 2018, the German interior minister announced with irritating pride: “On the occasion of my 69th birthday, 69 people – though I did not order it – were deported to Afghanistan.” Now, he’s pushing to resume deportation flights for Afghans who have committed criminal offenses. Seehofer has no interest in bad news from Kabul.
Nor does Heiko Maas, his counterpart in the Foreign Ministry. Maas likes keeping problems at arm’s length anyway. He would perhaps find the issue interesting if he could take center stage as the host of an Afghan peace conference. That would at least generate some good pictures for television.
Not once does the foreign minister pick up the phone to get a first-hand account of the situation from his deputy in Kabul. Why should he, he would later ask in an interview with DER SPIEGEL. After all, the proper channels must be respected.
The envoy in Kabul is requested by headquarters not to write any “DKoRs.” These “diplomatic correspondences” from embassies are widely disseminated throughout the federal government. Van Thiel, though, is regarded as a straight talker, so he is asked to communicate by email to the extent possible. That makes it easier to keep bad news under wraps.
Despite the approaching election, the government apparatus in Berlin is sinking into its summer slumber during these weeks, and the campaign itself isn’t showing much urgency either. At the Foreign Ministry, many of the Afghanistan experts are still on holiday or are new in their posts. The state secretary responsible for the portfolio, Miguel Berger, is away on vacation, as if the developments in Afghanistan have little to do with him. And then, as fate will have it, one of the embassy’s most experienced crisis managers happens to be out of the office during the crucial days due to urgent surgery.
At the end of July 2021, Antje Leendertse takes over command. The state secretary is a veteran diplomat, and a few weeks later, she will move to New York as Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations. But she has little experience with Afghanistan. She’s not an expert and she’s never been there. She is just doing vacation replacement.
The front where she has to take up a position also isn’t in Kabul, but rather in Berlin, between the Spree River and the Brandenburg Gate. It’s not the Taliban she’s worried about, but Seehofer’s staff at the Interior Ministry – because they’re putting the brakes on procedures for getting local Afghan hires out of the country and want deportation flights to finally recommence. The next one is scheduled for August 4.
The night before, the state secretary is stuck in a conference call on international health policy, which wraps up around 7 p.m. Leendertse describes what happens next to DER SPIEGEL as follows: At 7:30 p.m., an official from the legal department calls and says they have to cancel the deportation flight the next day – because of the security incident. Could she please make a call to the state secretary in the Interior Ministry?
What security incident? Well, she is told, van Thiel has reported the Kabul attack and that the embassy is under fire. Leendertse hasn’t read the mail yet, but she also knows that a few lines from Kabul won’t be enough to dissuade the Interior Ministry from continuing deportations. She needs more ammunition. So, she arranges a conference call with all the “usual suspects,” as she puts it.
At around 8 p.m., everyone is assembled, and Leendertse receives a report from van Thiel on what is happening in Kabul. In the meantime, the attack on the defense minister’s residence has been reported by news agencies. The state secretary realizes that the envoy is angry because his descriptions weren’t enough for her, but the Interior Ministry is breathing down her neck.
She needs a threat assessment from the embassy’s security adviser. He’s a Federal Police officer, so his division is under the control of Seehofer’s ministry. If he too says it’s too dangerous to go to the airport the next day, then she will have enough ammunition. The requested report arrives in Berlin a short time later, and Leendertse has the deportation flight canceled.
The frame of reference in which Berlin operates is an administrative one, bureaucratic. Kabul, by contrast, is in crisis mode. This disconnect leads to constant misunderstandings. Every day, workers at the embassy witness order unraveling around them and the crumbling of the government’s power. They issue warnings and urge Berlin to finally prepare for a serious emergency.
For Leendertse, though, the embassy in Afghanistan is just one of many balls she must keep juggling. Things rarely move quickly in Berlin, and stamina is key if you want to make any progress at all. Sometimes, just small steps can make for a successful day – even if events in Kabul are changing far more rapidly and Berlin is falling further and further behind.
Every Sunday, diplomats from the European Union, NATO, the UK, the U.S. and Germany meet for breakfast in the Afghan capital. When van Thiel showed up there on July 11 to start his posting, the mood was somber, according to his recollection, with his counterparts saying the situation was rather terrible. “How much time do we have left?” van Thiel asked. We probably still have a few months, came the answer.
At the next Sunday breakfast, the mood is even gloomier. Now, the word is: We are no longer talking about months, but weeks. Van Thiel invites the British and American generals to the German Embassy to learn how they assess the military situation. The meeting takes place on August 7, and van Thiel has two staff members with him to ensure that he has witnesses. Under no circumstances does he want Berlin to accuse him of exaggerating the situation.
The military officers give a date of August 31. They believe that Kabul will be able to hold out for that long. But the Taliban wouldn’t even have to conquer the capital, the generals make it clear. It would be enough for them to cut off electricity, water and transportation. “If that happens, we’re out,” the generals say. “Because we can’t allow ourselves to become hostages to the Taliban.” Van Thiel reports all this back to Berlin. His warnings are growing increasingly urgent.
With the subject heading “Alert Level Dark Yellow,” he writes in a confidential email to the Foreign Ministry on August 11 that “our drivers were with the Americans today and saw large numbers leaving.” At a dinner afterward, he says, he learned that the Americans were flying out “their people and NATO.” The last plane is scheduled to leave the country on August 25: “That may – normatively! – not be true, but is nevertheless – factually – perhaps not as impossible as I would like to think.”
One day later, van Thiel types in the subject line of his evening email: “We’re getting into the light red tones.” And then in the first sentence of his mail: “We’re working our way into the red tones.” Smiley.
He writes that he has just learned that the British Embassy next door will be moved to the airport by Sunday. This decision is likely to trigger a “domino effect” in neighboring Canada and Japan, he writes. “It’s closing in,” van Thiel writes, “thunder and lightning expected for the next few days.”
But Berlin still doesn’t want to evacuate, afraid of signaling that Afghanistan is being abandoned. That, they fear, could destabilize the country even faster. Besides: How are you supposed to get local Afghan hires out if there is no longer an embassy?
And yet, when it comes to rescuing these people, huge amounts of time have been wasted in recent months.
Van Thiel finds refuge in the kind of gallows humor that is typical of the Rhine region. “In the end, everything goes well. Until it doesn’t,” referring not to the embassy but to the fate of Afghan local hires. “If things were to go wrong this time, it will have been avoidable.”
August 6, 2021: After the U.S. and NATO announce their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban launch a major offensive in the country.
August 12, 2021: A few provincial capitals are taken almost without a fight, including former Bundeswehr bases.
August 16, 2021: The Taliban conquer Kabul. The Panjshir Valley is the only area where there is still fighting. Since September 2021, the entire country has been under their control.
Vacation, finally, Tobias thinks. A few days in Greece with his girlfriend. Switch off, soak up the sun, relax. If it weren’t for the mobile phone. Tobias is an alias; his real name cannot be used in this article. He’s a lieutenant colonel of the elite Special Forces Command, or KSK unit. Now in Greece, he has no time to do anything but look at his phone. He has to spend the whole day scrolling from top to bottom and then from bottom to top – through the huge number of messages, as he will later report.
All the news coming from Afghanistan is bad. Kunduz falls on August 8. On August 11, the Afghan president travels to the north to ask for help from local warlords, his bitter enemies. This would be tantamount to the mayor of Hamburg begging the Hells Angels for help with his police force. On August 12, the 207th Army Corps in Herat defects to the Taliban.
Tobias is sitting in the August sun in Greece, but his thoughts are in Afghanistan. “This is the endgame,” he thinks, as he will later recount. The officer has been to Afghanistan four times in recent years on covert missions. Now, like an addict, he follows on his mobile phone as the country stumbles toward the abyss.
On Friday, August 13, he flies back to Germany and calls operational headquarters in Potsdam. Are we needed? No, they say, we’ll be sending out a fact-finding team on Monday. Alright, he thinks, so he can probably go fishing in the state of Brandenburg as he has planned.
In the first days of August, Fish returns to Kabul. Why is he called Fish? Good question. Perhaps because he enjoys sailing? Or because he comes from the port city of Wilhelmshaven? But in the elite unit of the German Federal Police, the GSG 9, everyone has an alias. And Fish is called Fish.
What is certain is that he has a reputation in the service, and what a reputation it is. Fifty-six years old, three tours of Afghanistan, three in Baghdad, once in Kosovo and in the civil war-torn country of El Salvador in 1989. There are few who have as much experience as Fish.
Sailing is an expensive hobby, so Fish volunteers for a fourth deployment to Afghanistan. Those sent to Kabul receive the highest foreign allowance for government employees. This time, he is sent as the ambassador’s security adviser. The Federal Police’s bodyguards report to him, and he coordinates security arrangements for the embassy. He starts his tour in July 2020. A few weeks of Afghanistan, a few weeks of home leave, a few weeks of Afghanistan. That’s what things look like when you’re working in the service, and now he’s back.
Fish is well networked within the capital’s security community. And the information he is getting worries him. On August 9, he learns that the Taliban have closed the ring around Kabul.
Fish knows how flimsy the embassy’s evacuation plans are. The Bundeswehr has promised to fly the diplomats out of the international airport in an emergency, but that presupposes that they’ll be able to get there. And that could be difficult if the city is consumed by violence and chaos. Nor our problem, says the military.
Within just a few days, the airport is transformed into a stinking garbage dump. Foto: Christoph Klawitter
On Sunday, U.S. helicopters evacuate Western diplomats from the Green Zone in the center of Kabul, bringing them to the airport. Foto: Rahmat Gul / AP
The embassy has spent months pressing for Berlin to contract a private helicopter service for the event of an emergency. A company that has previously flown for the Bundeswehr is under discussion, but it suddenly raises its prices. The Foreign Ministry considers it too expensive and pushes for other offers and a call for tenders – as if it has all the time in the world.
Ultimately, there will be no helicopters, not even at the end. Instead, Fish now sees the huge U.S. helicopters constantly flying over the German Embassy. For days now, the Americans have been transporting people and materials to the airport. Which is also alarming.
There are still no instructions from Berlin to prepare for the evacuation of the embassy, and Fish’s men have begun insisting on action. Before withdrawal, they point out, massive amounts of sensitive materials will need to be destroyed. Will they have time?
So they start moving, even without orders from Berlin. Large fires in the embassy courtyard begin burning, day and night. The bureaucratic work of two decades goes up in flames. Because of possible pension claims, the personnel files of local hires have been archived. It would be a nightmare if they were to fall into the hand of the Taliban.
The Federal Police officers throw weapons, ammunition and communications equipment that they can’t take with them into a dried-up well on the grounds. A load of weapons, a layer of fast-drying cement, then more weapons and another layer of cement.
And the 15 armored Mercedes SUVs, each with an estimated value of a half-million euros? There’s an empty lot behind the embassy. Fish and his men first destroy the steering modules, and then they roll the heavy cars across the field with a forklift until they are little more than scrap metal. They will be useless to the Taliban.
The news that reaches the general during the night of August 12 worries him. Markus Laubenthal is deputy inspector general of the Bundeswehr, and his boss, who has oversight over the entire German military, is currently on vacation in Italy.
The U.S. media is reporting that Washington is transferring 3,000 men and women from the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to the Kabul Airport. Laubenthal can guess what that means. If the Americans are sending in their rapid reaction force, then things are about to get serious.
Afghans climbing on top of a plane as they try to get out of the country following the Taliban takeover. Foto: Wakil Kohsar / AFP
On Monday, August 16, desperate men, women and children storm the civilian part of the Kabul airport, trying to get away from the Taliban. Foto: AFP
He is aware of the plans for a military evacuation operation that were drawn up by the Bundeswehr as early as April, before its withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has read reports from Western intelligence agencies that still believe Kabul won’t fall to the Taliban for at least 30 to 90 days.
The general realizes that the Americans’ decision will significantly ratchet up the pressure. But the Germans have already developed a plan, and it must be followed. It looks as follows: A crisis support team of diplomats and soldiers is to be dispatched to Kabul on the coming Monday, followed by reconnaissance forces on Tuesday, support forces on Wednesday and main forces on Thursday.
On Friday afternoon, Laubenthal presents the plan to senior parliamentarians in Berlin. And that evening, the first directive from the ministry is sent to the Bundeswehr Operations Command.
The information from Berlin is anything but concerning to the planners in Potsdam. There is talk of the evacuation of around 260 people. That would require a total of three roundtrip flights with an A400M transport aircraft, a job that could likely be completed within two days.
On Thursday night, Leendertse decides to move forward the crisis team meeting scheduled for Monday to Friday morning because of the deteriorating situation. The state secretary convenes the meeting and then gives van Thiel the floor. He has called into the meeting from Kabul.
The envoy describes the situation. He says the Taliban are just outside the city, the neighboring Japanese want to leave, the Canadians are also leaving, and the American Embassy is emptying out.
During the night, van Thiel reports, a drone conducted systematic surveillance of the German compound. Not far away, on the site of the former NATO headquarters, an alarm was triggered, though the cause is still unclear. “We don’t have very much time left,” van Thiel says, “we have to get ready to evacuate.”
Then it’s Tania von Uslar-Gleichen’s turn to speak. Her staff has prepared talking points for von Uslar-Gleichen, who is the vice president of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND. When van Thiel was talking, everybody sensed that he was tense. Who wouldn’t be in his position? The language of the BND woman, on the other hand, is balanced, bureaucratic and detached.
She recites what has been written down for her: The Taliban have no interest in the military capture of Kabul, she says. A takeover of the city is unlikely before Sept. 11. However, a full military withdrawal by the international community and “diplomatic disengagement” could accelerate this process.
The Taliban move into the Afghan capital. Foto: Jim Huylebroek / NYT / Redux / laif
Taliban fighters posing in the presidential palace after taking control of Kabul. Foto: Zabi Karimi / AP
Listening over the phone, van Thiel can hardly believe what he’s hearing. Afghans are closing out their bank accounts, food prices are skyrocketing, the Afghan president is flying to Washington with 56 people – and 39 of them elect to skip the flight back. He has reported all of this to Berlin. The signs are clear. Why aren’t people taking him seriously?
After the vice president, two members of her staff are scheduled to speak. Van Thiel is unaware of the speaking order, given that he is attending the meeting by phone. He absolutely has to say something, he can’t leave Uslar-Gleichen’s comments unchallenged, but the state secretary cuts him off. Participants in the meeting would later report that Leendertse clearly had no interest in the bad news from Kabul. The BND woman’s message fit far better with the ministry’s political line.
The two additional speakers from the BND admit that things could, of course, turn out far differently if certain “trigger points” were reached. In the confidential minutes of the meeting, however, which would later become public, there is only the fatal sentence: “Takeover of Kabul by TLB unlikely before 9/11.” A clear BND failure.
Van Thiel is still stuck in the conference call with Berlin when he sees an item of breaking news from India. He reads that the Taliban will be entering Kabul that very night. By email, he proposes a bet with his staff. Who is closer to the truth: the Indians or the BND? “My money is on the Indians,” he writes.
On Saturday morning, Fish receives a message from his American counterpart via WhatsApp. The security adviser to the U.S. mission writes that the embassy will be abandoned within the next 72 hours, and that the security systems in the Green Zone will be shut down. All partner nations are being asked to move to the military part of the airport as well. Anyone who needs assistance, he writes, should get in touch.
Fish informs van Thiel, who calls the U.S. chargé d’affaires. The American diplomat initially hems and haws. Forty-eight hours, he finally says, according to van Thiel’s recollections, that’s how much time you have left.
As the embassy’s security adviser, this places Fish in a bind. He is a police officer, and not a diplomate, but on assignment overseas, he reports to the Foreign Ministry. But the Foreign Ministry seems to consistently ignore his assessments of the situation. How should he proceed?
He calls Dieter Romann, the president of the Federal Police, who in turn gives his employee in Kabul some delicate advice. He tells Fish that if he has the feeling the embassy needs to be evacuated and the Foreign Ministry isn’t playing ball, then he should take the diplomats into “protective custody.”
Fish knows what that means. If the envoy proves to be stubborn, he could issue an order “eight” on him and have him taken away. In handcuffs. He shares this later without so much as wincing. Ultimately, Romann’s recommendation is more theoretical in nature, because the fact is that Fish and van Thiel both have similar assessments of the situation.
There will be no question of rest and relaxation in Berlin this weekend. At eight o’clock on Saturday morning, Angela Merkel confers in a video conference with all the members of her cabinet who have any role in Germany’s presence in Afghanistan: the foreign, interior and defense ministers. Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also present.
The day before, the Defense Ministry surprised the other departments at the crisis team meeting by announcing its intention to send “robust forces” to Kabul, a total of 300 men and women. Now, the partners in Germany’s governing coalition are arguing over whether the deployment requires a mandate from the Bundestag, the federal parliament.
Van Thiel’s reports from Kabul have triggered unease within the Foreign Ministry. What is there to the reports that the Americans are intending to pull out? Can it be verified? The German ambassador in Washington is asked to tap all her contacts, and the political director and State Secretary Berger are also asked to use theirs. Berger has since returned from vacation.
In Berlin, there is still hope that things might not turn out so badly after all. Markus Potzel contacts van Thiel by email on Saturday. The German government’s former Afghanistan commissioner who spent months negotiating with Taliban envoys in Doha, Potzel has been selected as Germany’s next ambassador to Kabul, and he plans to start on Monday. Potzel requests that van Thiel and the entire embassy staff stay in Kabul. He says the Taliban won’t arrive in Kabul that quickly – and that if they do, they wouldn’t harm the Germans. They’re not that dangerous, he says.
Thousands of people are crowding forward at the North Gate to make it into the safety of the airport. Foto: Christoph Klawitter
The airport is littered with vehicles that have either been hurriedly abandoned or destroyed. Foto: Christoph Klawitter
Van Thiel rebuffs Potzel, writing, “That the Taliban mean us no harm is nothing but an unproven assumption.” Potzel then tries the same line with Fish, but he, too, thinks the idea from Berlin is absurd. “The Foreign Ministry abandoned us and largely ignored our assessments and operational proposals in the weeks leading up to the evacuation,” van Thiel will later tell DER SPIEGEL.
At four in the afternoon, Leendertse gets a call. The situation has deteriorated. A decision is needed on whether or not to move the embassy to the airport as early as Sunday. The state secretary schedules a conference call for 5:30 p.m. Kabul isn’t invited to participate, nor are the liaison officers from the Federal Police, the BND and the Defense Ministry, all of whom have offices in the Foreign Ministry. This is not the first time that the other departments have deliberately been left out of the loop when it comes to Afghanistan. Why? Because the ministry’s management isn’t interested in contradiction?
Van Thiel is contacted after the meeting. Yes, the embassy can be relocated to the airport, provided the ability to work there is guaranteed. The envoy has questions. Where are they supposed to do their work at the airport?
They have those containers. Which containers? Well, the containers that Kabul reported. Van Thiel, as he will later describe it, stops to think about it. The Federal Police reported that they were packing a container of materials and taking it to the airport. But it was a container for material – not a container you live or work in.
He recalls saying, “Thank you for the decision. So, we’re supposed to relocate to non-existent housing containers at the airport, provided that we are fully capable of working there? Great.”
Fish and his men spend the entire day destroying the embassy’s sensitive equipment. Now, the servers are in line for demolition. The one belonging to the Foreign Ministry is spared for now. How else is van Thiel supposed to communicate with Berlin? But the time has come to get rid of the server used for secret NATO communications.
Fish calls in the embassy’s IT expert, wanting to know the best way to destroy it. The expert pounds a hammer into the computer. “That’s how you do it,” he says.
In the evening, they have a barbeque. The last supplies need to be used up. The remaining meat is thrown on the grill and there’s beer. But then the alarm signal comes over the loudspeakers and the call: “Incoming, incoming!”
A drone flies over the site, and everyone runs to the shelters. Shortly thereafter: “All clear, all clear.” It will happen twice this evening, with no one still in the mood for a BBQ.
On this Saturday, Jens Arlt is celebrating his daughter’s seventh birthday. He lives near the German city of Osnabrück, and all the guests have arrived for coffee and cake. But Arlt’s mind is elsewhere.
“I need to make a call,” he says to his wife. “Is something wrong?” she asks. “Yes,” he says. “A trip to Afghanistan.” – “When?” – “Wednesday.” – “And you, are you part of it?” – “Yes,” Arlt says. “And today?” – “No, not today, but I have to make some phone calls.” This is how he will recall the conversation later.
Arlt is commander of Airborne Brigade 1 in Saarlouis. That night, the general sent three officers from his staff to Potsdam to the Operations Command. Throughout the morning, evacuation plans for Afghanistan have been updated there, and it has now become clear that he will be leading the operation.
Over the next few hours, during his daughter’s birthday party, things start moving quickly. The news coming out of Kabul is increasingly dire. In the early afternoon, the Defense Ministry triggers the formal alarm for all concerned units with Order No. 2.
Arlt is glued to the phone. There is no deployment order yet, but it is very clear to him that time is short. His departure won’t be waiting until Wednesday. He runs to the basement to check his equipment. Since his time as commanding officer at the KSK, everything has been lying there, ready to go in various boxes.
There’s a box with camouflage, another with the desert combat suit. One box stores a compass, pistol holster and radio communications equipment. All he has to do is grab it and he’ll have the right equipment for the job.
When the birthday party ends, he says goodbye. As long as he’s on duty, he doesn’t call home, in part to protect himself. His wife knows that. She knows she won’t be able to speak to her husband for the next few weeks. It’s 7 p.m. when the general gets into the car. He has to drive to join his unit in Saarlouis.
On Sunday morning, Fish receives a new message from his American counterpart on WhatsApp. At 5 p.m., they will be implementing precisely what they had communicated in his last message, writes the security adviser to the U.S. Embassy. The American representation will be evacuated and there will no longer be any security in the Green Zone.
But without the Green Zone, the German Embassy is defenseless. Fish knows that the evacuation must take place now. He uses his special code to connect to the surveillance cameras of the American blimp that is flying over the city. What he sees doesn’t surprise him. Chaos in the streets.
He confers with his police leaders. He will later recall saying that he rules out ground transport. “What do you think?” They are all of the same opinion. Heading to the airport by car, they agree, would be insane.
At around 12:30 in the afternoon, Fish calls the Americans’ “Battle Captain.” “We would like to take advantage of your airlift capabilities,” he says. “How many of you are there?” the American responds, according to Fish’s recollection. “About 80.” He rounds up a little bit to be on the safe side, and in the end, it will only be 43.
“OK, then come right now.” – “I understand that, but we still have a few things to take care of. We’ll be there around 4 p.m.” – “Either you come now, or you don’t come at all.” Then the American hangs up.
GSG-9 member Fish (in the car) and his men with their old Toyota, that they requisitioned at the airport. For the photo, they sprayed “The Legend Fish” on the door of the vehicle for their commanding officer. Foto: Christoph Klawitter
The situation at the airport grows increasingly tense. Foto: Wakil Kohsar / AFP
Fish runs to van Thiel. The two agree. They have to evacuate immediately. The IT expert asks whether he should destroy the Foreign Ministry server now. “One moment,” says van Thiel, “one last mail.”
At 1:04 p.m., he writes to headquarters: “We’re getting ready to leave. DO WE HAVE A GREEN LIGHT?” This time, it’s fast. The answer arrives at 1:05 p.m.: “You do! Sincerely, Information Manager.” At 1:06 p.m., the envoy sends his final email from the embassy: “Thank you! We will only be reachable by phone for now. We’re destroying the IT. Have a nice Sunday. End.”
In the embassy courtyard, the convoy with the armored cars that Fish and his men spared in their destruction operation is ready. They have been labeled so that everyone knows which seat is assigned to them, making it easier to account for everyone. Each person is allowed eight kilograms of luggage. The police have stuffed their backpacks so full of ammunition that they can hardly carry anything else.
Fish’s men report that everyone is there. Everything is done, even the two turtles have been fed. Fish gives the signal to set off. At 1:31 p.m., the convoy departs from the embassy compound.
Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is at her home in the town of Püttlingen in Saarland on this weekend. It is usually quiet in Berlin during the vacation season, and her next few days are stuffed with campaign stops, but it now seems unlikely that she will be able to make them.
On Sunday morning, the defense minister is on the phone with Chancellor Merkel. The time has come, she has to give the order to deploy. Merkel listens, and then gives her OK.
The ministry issues directive No. 3, authorizing the evacuation operation. The military planners in Potsdam, who are now working around the clock, are ordered to submit an operations plan by 8 p.m.
The pressure is growing, and the Bundeswehr is running out of time. There will no longer be any fact-finding mission – the force will have to go into Kabul “hot,” without any advance troops. The time is set for the first aircraft to take off from the Wunstorf Air Base near Hannover: 5 a.m. Monday.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is driven to Bonn, to her office in the second official offices of the Defense Ministry. The premises are equipped with “red lines,” encrypted communication links that can’t be tapped.
That afternoon, she consults with the military. What about the KSK? Should the elite troops also be dispatched? The minister supports the idea. She wants a “robust” deployment. It’s better to be prepared for the worst. Her officers agree. At 5:30 p.m., the alert order goes out to KSK leaders.
She waited, hesitated and tried to delay this moment as long as she could. Jessica Meinhardt is dreading this call. But there’s nothing she can do now. She’ll have to turn her mobile phone in soon. It’s Sunday evening when she dials her mother’s number.
It all started at 8:30 in the morning the previous day, when the company sergeant major called. On a Saturday morning. It’s the kind of call where you think for two or three seconds about it before you answer. What might have happened? “Jessie,” says the company sergeant major, “we’ve been alerted.” That’s how Meinhardt recalls it later.
She’s a little bit proud of how she responded. Quite dryly. “Now what?” she asked. Nothing more. “Notice to move,” the company sergeant major says, “mobilization.” – “OK, name a time.” – “Have breakfast first, then come to the barracks. We will gather at 1 p.m.”
Meinhardt is a staff sergeant in the 31st Paratrooper Regiment in Seedorf, Lower Saxony. Two alternate companies of the unit are kept on constant standby for the military evacuation of German nationals abroad in the event of an emergency.
Just great, Meinhardt thinks, another weekend sacrificed. And then, on Monday, everyone will be sitting in the office as normal, because it will just have been an exercise. But when she arrives at the barracks at 1 p.m., the company sergeant major says: evacuation operation. He doesn’t say much more than that.
Then they sit there and wait and drink coffee and watch the boss run from one meeting to the next. Only bits and pieces of information are provided. At this stage, she doesn’t really know what is going on. This is also normal, if only to avoid compromising safety. So that nobody calls home and says, “Honey, I’m about to fly here and there,” as some agent listens in.
Things go on like this until the evening, when the announcement is finally given: “Notice to move tomorrow morning at eight.” Everyone should return to the barracks by then. OK, Meinhardt thinks to herself – we’re about to be activated, but what does that really mean? They have been activated often in the past. In the end, the paratroopers from Seedorf stayed home and the KSK was deployed instead.
When it comes to the question of who will be sent, she remembers saying: “Come on, sergeant, you guys could use some women.” She doesn’t want to be told: “You’re a mom, you’re a single parent, you better stay here.” At the end of the day, she’s a soldier just like everyone else.
She says the company sergeant major hesitated a bit. “Are you sure?” he asked, but she’s sure. She wants to go, and she has a plan, too. The people in Kabul will have to be searched at the airport, she says. And who is going to do that with women if not a woman?
It’s now Sunday evening. She has been issued her weapon, the mobile phones have to be handed in soon, then they will line up and board the buses to the air base in Wunstorf. It’s not looking like an exercise.
Meinhardt dials her mother’s number. The two children are on summer vacation at grandma’s; the big one will soon turn 13 and the little one eight. She tries to keep the conversation short. “We’re being deployed today,” she says, “to Afghanistan. I don’t know for how long.”
She is no longer able to recall precisely how her mother reacted. In any case, it was panic. Maybe she asked if Jessica had a screw loose. And then nothing at all. Just silence.
She calls again later. This time, her son answers. Meinhardt later recalls that she initially wants to keep it short, but is unable to. So, she tells him that she loves him and all that and then asks him to hand the phone to grandma. Then she hears the kids in the background. She didn’t think it would be this bad. No, she thinks, this goodbye is really tough. Especially since she herself has no idea what she might be facing in Afghanistan.
First Lieutenant Marc-André Hinzmann, on the other hand, has a pretty good idea of what’s in store for him. He’s scheduled for Tashkent. At the airport in the Uzbek capital, he and his military police are to check and register the people who are flown in from Kabul by the Bundeswehr before they fly onward to Germany.
The previous evening, he had introduced himself to his 16 men. They come from all across Germany, and he doesn’t know most of them. Most of them have more experience than the young lieutenant who is now their boss. Tashkent is Hinzmann’s first foreign assignment.
There he is, standing in front of these long-serving sergeants, some of whom have been on quite a few missions, telling them what his priorities are. A correct appearance, an impeccable uniform and that all corona regulations in the host country be observed.
On early Monday morning, according to Hinzmann’s recollection of these hours, they drive to Wunstorf. He hadn’t been expecting such a crowd. There are photographers, cameras and spotlights everywhere on the fences of the air base. The heavy A400M transport aircraft are already waiting on the tarmac.
There are so many soldiers here that he sits on the ground with his men outside the barracks fence. They slide cartridges into their magazines. An air force officer hands him a passenger list for him to check that everyone is on it.
Everything is OK, except that Kabul is at the top of the list and not Tashkent. Why is that? “There’s also a plane to Tashkent,” the air force man says. “Should I book you on that one?” Hinzmann thinks, perhaps there’s a reason it says Kabul. He decides to ask again.
He calls the Bundeswehr Military Police Command in Hannover and recalls them saying, “We’ll check and get back to you.” It doesn’t take long before the callback comes. “Kabul is right.” – “Oh,” says Hinzmann, “and what am I supposed to do there?” – “Well, fly there first. You’ll manage.”
The lieutenant goes to his men. “Small change,” he says, “we’re going to Kabul.” He gets some pleased faces. His men are up for Kabul. And so is he.
It is dark when German Airforce 309 leaves Turkmenistan’s airspace on Monday evening. The ground station in Türkmenabat transmits the frequency of the next sector and then signs off with the Germans.
Commander Stefan Richter (whose name has been changed here) and his co-pilot switch to the new frequency. It isn’t far to the border, and they have to register their flight with the Afghan controller, but Kabul isn’t answering.
“Let’s fly in,” Richter says to his co-pilot. For a few minutes, they can still hear the babble of civilian radio traffic from the Turkmenistan side, which gets quieter and quieter. Then, Richter recalls, it grows silent.
The crew of the A400M is tense. During their midday refueling stop in Baku, Azerbaijan, the men saw the images from Kabul airport on their mobile phones, the videos of desperate Afghans clinging to one of the Americans’ giant C-18 transport planes as it took off.
What might be awaiting them in Kabul? The stop in Baku lasted not one and a half, but four hours. Now, they are much too late – it’s already dark, and they don’t know if they will be allowed to land.
After a quarter of an hour, the capital city’s airport appears in front of them. The runway is unlit, the pilots have no contact with the ground, the radio is dead. It’s eerie. They systematically search the frequencies. Nothing. They know that an American AWACS aircraft must be nearby, but it isn’t contacting them.
Bundeswehr A400M transport planes operating out of Tashkent, Uzbekistan brought troops and equipment into Kabul and returned carrying refugees who would then fly onward to Germany. Foto: AA / abaca press / ddp
A U.S. Marine with Chris Klawitter at the North Gate. Foto: Christoph Klawitter / US Marine
The A400M is now circling 20 miles southwest of Kabul at an altitude of 8,000 meters. The pilots see above them in the darkness an American B-1 bomber that has dimmed its position lights. Every now and then, it appears as an object on their radar screens before disappearing again. They try to establish radio contact with it. No answer.
After three quarters of an hour, they hear a soft crackling in their headphones, apparently a U.S. aircraft making contact with the ground. Now, they finally have a frequency and then also a connection.
The American military controller reports under his call sign “Hitman.” Later, it turns out that he is sitting next to the runway under a party tent, using a simple handheld radio to replace the damaged tower.
He doesn’t have good news. The airport is closed until further notice and the runway still isn’t clear, but Richter is told he can wait. They refueled so much in Baku that they can circle over Kabul for two or three hours. At some point, “Hitman” reports back. “Cleared to land,” he says, “at your own risk.”
Landing in Kabul isn’t easy, even during normal times. The airport is located at an altitude of 1,800 meters, and in the summer, it is often hot, even at night. As a result, the air has so little lift that aircraft have to approach at a very high speed until just before touchdown to compensate.
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Richter and his co-pilot darken their aircraft entirely – they don’t want to become a target – and then begin a steep descent. Without positioning lights or landing lights, they are now flying at a high speed at night toward an unlit runway. When they are at about 1,000 meters elevation, “Hitman” suddenly orders them to abort the approach. There are people on the tarmac.
The commander pulls the heavy aircraft up to get out of Kabul Valley. The whole operation consumes an enormous amount of fuel. They circle again, hoping for a second chance to land, but it never comes. At 10 p.m. local time, they have just enough kerosene left to reach Tashkent. GAF 309 turns and flies north toward Uzbekistan.