In August 2021, the Taliban captured Kabul. The capital city became a trap for thousands of Afghans and Germans. Berlin sent in Germany’s armed forces to extract thousands of men, women and children. They had little time left.
02.09.2022, 10.03 Uhr
On Sunday, August 15, 2021, three U.S. helicopters fly 43 men and women from the German Embassy in Kabul out of the highly secured Green Zone of the Afghan capital to the airport. It is a last-minute escape. In the afternoon, Taliban fighters invade the palace of the Afghan president, who has already fled.
Twelve Germans remain in Kabul, diplomats, staffers with the BND foreign intelligence service, and federal police officers. Over the next two days, they ferry refugees into the airport. On Monday evening, the first German military plane lands. The largest evacuation operation in the history of the Bundeswehr begins.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 33/2022 (August 13th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
The stench is overwhelming. It leaves the German soldiers gasping for breath as they descend the ramp of their plane upon arrival in Kabul. Later, they will talk about how this nauseating mixture of fecal matter and decay affixed itself to their hair and their uniforms, how it seemed to gum up their lungs. When they returned to Germany, some of them were told by comrades: “You stink like Kabul.”
One can get used to stench. And to the garbage that piles up between the cement walls and the processing points, near the gates and in the open areas where the refugees are camping. Mutilated wooden pallets, flattened water bottles, torn clothing, burst open suitcases, diapers, empty ammunition boxes, excrement and even blood. The entire airport is a giant garbage dump.
Soon, the men and women will even stop registering the gunfire that continues throughout the day and night. The constant shooting and the bursting of stun grenades used by the U.S. Marines and their Afghan helpers to push people back from the airport gates – you can even get used to that, say soldiers who were there.
The KSK, the federal police and the BND repeatedly brought refugees in during the night using the “secret service gate.” Foto: Christoph Klawitter
Men from the Unit 01 “Cobra” of the Afghan intelligence service NDS, who were deployed at the airport as support troops for the Americans Foto: Christoph Klawitter
Those who arrive at night will later describe scenes out of the post-apocalyptical zombie world of the U.S. series “The Walking Dead.” The stench, the heat, the darkness, the Afghan refugee families hunched over on the ground in the shimmering light of burning garbage, with excrement surrounding them in addition to exhausted soldiers sleeping on the asphalt, rifles leaning against the cement barricades.
The worst is the fate of the children, according to the recollection of numerous soldiers, police officers, diplomats and intelligence agents who were at the Kabul airport in August 2021. The images of the children will become emblazoned in their memories. Even months after the mission, back in Germany, sometimes just seeing a small boy in the supermarket line is enough to trigger a horror film in the minds of the Afghanistan veterans.
One hard-bitten officer from the German special forces commando KSK begins tearing up as he talks about it. Code-named Tobias, he has to take a break for a cigarette before he can continue. One particular scene, which took place at the airport’s Abbey Gate, still haunts him.
Thousands of Afghans are pushing their way between the razor wire, a trench full of water and cement walls in these days in August 2021, doing everything they can to get on board a plane out of Kabul. Tobias and his men are standing in front of the gate trying to get German citizens into the airport so they can be flown out. They suddenly see two men in the crowd behind the razor wire arguing over a young boy who looks to be around four years old.
Babies and young children are seen as a ticket into the airport since they generate sympathy. Crying mothers hold up their infants in the crowd to attract attention. Babies are shoved into the arms of soldiers in the hopes that their families will be allowed to join them later.
Young children have become coveted commodities in these August days of 2021. Men pull them away from their mothers to use them as a ticket through the airport gates. Soldiers watch as the putative fathers of the stolen children heedlessly abandon them as soon as they have been allowed into the airport. “Children were disposed of like garbage,” General Jens Arlt, the commander of the German evacuation operation, will say later.
Tobias is in the middle of the chaos at Abbey Gate when he sees these two men arguing over the boy. It is obvious that neither is the father. They pull on the child, each holding onto one of his arms, as the KSK troops watch in horror. The scene is taking place behind the razor wire, so they can’t interfere. They can only look on helplessly as the two men pull harder and harder – until the boy’s shoulders are dislocated.
Read Part I and Part II of the series
- Escape from Afghanistan, Part I: “We’re Destroying the IT. Have a Nice Sunday” By Matthias Gebauer und Konstantin von Hammerstein
- Escape from Afghanistan, Part II: “Ground Attack! Ground Attack!” By Matthias Gebauer und Konstantin von Hammerstein
Fish and his comrades stare flabbergasted into their mobile phones, unable to believe what they have seen. A member of the GSG-9 special forces unit with a rather unusual alias, Fish is the security adviser to the German Embassy in Kabul. His team is made up of special forces from a unit of the German Federal Police. Known as the PSA, the unit protects German diplomatic missions in dangerous areas.
On Tuesday, August 17, they watch as a five-year-old boy, who is trying to flee from the Taliban with his mother, collapses in the heat at the airport and begins quivering in a seizure. One of the PSA men, who has been trained as an EMT, is able to stabilize the boy and save his life, Fish will later report. The police officer, in Fish’s recollection, brings the boy and his mother to a Bundeswehr transport plane and hands them over to the soldiers there.
Afterward, Fish and his comrades are able to see on their mobile phones the image of the incident that the German tabloid Bild publishes. It shows three soldiers carrying the small boy into the plane. “Tough KSK Soldiers as Gentle Life Savers,” reads the headline. There isn’t a word about the federal police officer.
The Taliban are everywhere. The Germans could wave to them if they were so inclined. Every now and then, the Islamists drive down Russian Road at the North Gate on patrol, not 20 meters away from the Western soldiers, to clear the road for traffic. Frequently, the patrols consist of a trio of pickups flying the white Taliban flag, fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers in the bed.
Around 300 meters from North Gate, within sight of the German position, they have set up a checkpoint. When they feel that the crowds in front of the airport are getting too chaotic, small groups of four or five men wade in, striking the refugees with whips, beating and shoving them and firing their weapons into the air until things quiet down. The Taliban are the new rulers in this city, and they behave as such.
At Abbey Gate, they stand on the large shipping containers that the Americans have placed there as a barricade. There is a shoulder-wide gap between the containers and the airport’s cement wall through which the refugees must pass to get to the gate. The Taliban decide who is allowed through and who isn’t.
On one occasion, agents from Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, BND, are watching as a young Taliban fighter stumbles on the container and trips over the edge. He ends up at the feet of a British Marine, a wound on his head bleeding profusely. A British medic hurries over and bandages him up, before the troops lift him back up onto the container, where he remains standing with his bandage, looking as though he is wearing a white turban.
Officially, the airport is under U.S. control. Sometimes, American fighter jets thunder low over the tarmac to show the Taliban who is in charge. In truth, though, U.S. troops only control the military section of the airport. The Islamists periodically exert control over the civilian part.
It’s a disturbing situation for the men and women from the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military. For two decades, the Taliban were their enemies in Afghanistan. Now, they can see the bearded fighters with their Kalashnikovs a few hundred meters away sitting on the concrete in the shade of their parked vehicles and waiting. That’s all they have to do. In just a few days, the entire airport will be theirs. The foreigners are running out of time.
Wednesday finds Chris Klawitter in front of the North Gate, where he has been every day this week. The businessman from Hamburg has lived in the Afghan capital for two decades and earns his money as a logistics contractor for the Western troops. On Sunday, Fish’s federal police force ensured that he got to the airport, in preparation for flying him out to Doha that evening. But then Klawitter offered to remain and help out with the evacuation. He is more familiar with Kabul than most foreigners and also speaks the Dari Persian widely used in the capital city.
Now, he is the only German standing outside the gate, between the U.S. Marines and the men of the notorious Unit 01 “Cobra” belonging to the Afghan secret service agency NDS. The CIA has offered to fly them out to the U.S. with their families once the evacuation operation is complete. In exchange, they take care of the dirty work, attempting to keep the refugees away from the gates with warning shots and beatings.
Every now and then, the military police use water to flush the blood through the grate next to the table for registering the refugees.
Klawitter’s jobs is to get German citizens and local hires through the checkpoints and into the airport, but that has become a virtual impossibility. The conditions that he encounters on this day and the next, he will later say, are unfathomable. Klawitter can almost see the crowd of people outside the airport growing by the hour. Nobody knows when the final plane to freedom will take off and rumors are flying around the city. Those seeking to leave want to ensure that they don’t arrive too late.
When the Americans decide to fortify the gate from the inside and those waiting outside hear the construction noise, many read it as a sign that the gates might soon be shut forever. The information spreads with breathtaking speed, and immediately, even more people make their way to the airport.
By now, it is almost exclusively men who make it all the way to the gate. They push, shove and squeeze their way along the wall and razor wire behind which Klawitter, the Americans and their Afghan allies are standing. Those who fall to the ground risk being trampled to death.
Foto: Christoph Klawitter
American soldiers with Afghan refugees Foto: Christoph Klawitter
Klawitter watches as women, children and the elderly are shoved into the razor wire with incredible brutality, so that others can clamber over them and overcome the barrier. They are scenes he can only compare to stories he has heard from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, when soldiers would allegedly pile up the bodies of the dead along with the seriously wounded on top of razor wire barriers so they could climb over them.
The injuries he sees are horrific. The razor-sharp blades of the wire produce appalling gashes, as do other methods being used to keep the people at bay. One woman’s ear was torn off by a stun grenade, while a man has been shot through the shoulder. The soldiers drag the wounded to the German checkpoint, since it’s the only one under cover.
There, they are treated by EMTs and doctors from the Bundeswehr and their allies. Every now and then, they use water to flush the blood through the grate next to the table for registering the refugees. Sometimes, bodies lie at the checkpoint for several hours before someone comes to collect them.
It’s an untenable situation, that much is clear to both Klawitter and Jens Arlt, the general in charge of the German operation. It would be irresponsible in such a state of affairs to invite German citizens and Afghan local hires to make their way to the airport. Women and children, in particular, don’t stand a chance in the brutal crush. There has to be another way to get them to the airport.
The secret mission order for the commandos of the KSK is kept vague. The around 20 soldiers in Kabul are to use “unconventional means” to help rescue German citizens and ensure an “emergency attack capability” in case hostages are taken. The Defense Ministry has kept it at that.
In consultations with Arlt, KSK unit leader Tobias decides that the time for “unconventional means” has arrived. For weeks, the unit has been trying to get a former interpreter out of Mazar-e-Sharif and into Germany. Thus far, they have failed due to the strict rules the Bundeswehr has established when it comes to assisting local hires. The interpreter was only paid by the job, he wasn’t a staffer. Plus, he has a previous conviction and has a lifelong entry ban.
But that no longer matters. When the KSK soldiers see their man with his family in the crowd of people, they go outside the gate and rush the family into the airport. The first KSK operation is successful, but it won’t be mentioned in any mission reports.
And that’s not enough. Since the revelations about KSK ammunition disappearing and Nazis in their ranks, the commando has been under intense pressure. For a while, some were even talking about dismantling the KSK. A few nice media reports about the heroic deeds of the KSK in Kabul certainly wouldn’t hurt.
As he would later relate, Tobias is thinking of a particularly spectacular operation. He convinces General Arlt that it would be a good idea to bring over two of the KSK’s light helicopters from Germany in an A400M transport plane, so that they could be used to fly small groups of refugees out of the city center to the airport.
The Defense Ministry is enthusiastic about the idea from Kabul, with Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, also finding it attractive. She immediately sees it as an opportunity to raise the profile of the otherwise risk-averse Germans as the only country besides the U.S. to send helicopters to Afghanistan. At operation headquarters in Potsdam, military planners get to work.
Foto: Christoph Klawitter
You can almost see the crowd of people outside the airport growing by the hour. Foto: Christoph Klawitter
Tobias and his troops, meanwhile, are considering ways to get more women to the airport, because they are no longer being allowed through by the numerous young men standing in front of the gate. And quickly, they identify a potential target. DER SPIEGEL and other media outlets have reported on calls for help from a high school student from Munich who is trapped in Kabul. If they are successful, the fawning articles will practically write themselves.
The KSK men establish contact with the woman, telling her to be ready and that details of the operation will only be communicated to her at the last moment. Then, Tobias uses FaceTime to contact a man he has long had on his radar. He knows the man’s history by heart, one of the Taliban commanders in charge of Abbey Gate.
In fluent English, as Tobias will later relate, the commander names his conditions. The KSK, the Taliban commander says, may only transport people to the airport who are German citizens or who have a valid German residency permit. Tobias accepts the conditions. What other choice does he have?
In the night from Saturday to Sunday, the young woman and her family are standing in front of one of the gates, where she is received by the KSK soldiers and brought into the airport. “Operation Bluelight,” as it has been dubbed, could certainly have been more spectacular, but it is a success for Tobias and his men. Finally, the KSK is making positive headlines.
Two days later, a mixed team of BND agents and federal police manage to get 80 people into the airport in a similar nighttime operation – all of them locals hired by the BND and the German Embassy, together with their families. This rescue operation does not make it into the press.
On Friday, August 20, the first soldiers begin hitting the wall. An officer with plenty of mission experience, Arlt looks into his soldiers’ eyes and doesn’t like what he sees: emptiness and exhaustion. After four days at the Kabul airport, many of them have reached their wit’s end. They are young men, and this is the first mission abroad for most of them. They weren’t prepared for such an extreme environment.
General Arlt received numerous awards and accolades after the completion of the harrowing rescue operation. Foto:
Christian O. Bruch / DER SPIEGEL
The general decides to replace some of his troops, but the men and women resist. They want to stay no matter what, fearful that they might look like failures. Arlt, though, remains firm. That night, he has a company of reserves flown in from Tashkent.
Just a few hours after they arrive, Arlt sees a couple of them squatting apathetically on a palette in front of the plane, staring into the middle-distance. The horror of the airport has grabbed them even before they can start their work.
Early on Monday morning, at around 4 a.m., Corporal Adrian is chatting at the North Gate with an American comrade to kill time. At the moment, all is quiet here at the gate. The paratrooper only has a few hours left on his shift.
Adrian would later describe what then happened as follows: A shot suddenly pierces the silence. There has been a lot of gunfire in recent days, all of it coming from the Americans and their Afghan allies as they shoot into the air in an attempt to push people back from the gate. But this shot isn’t outside of the airport wall. It’s on the inside, as Adrian, a sniper, immediately recognizes.
He rushes a few meters between the high concrete walls to the back. He has no idea what has happened, but he knows that the rest of his unit is resting on the ground in the back, including his two best friends. Only a few seconds elapse before Adrian throws himself on the ground and takes up his position. But it seems like an eternity to him. “Those were the worst moments of my life,” he will later say, “because I had no contact with my unit.”
Sniper Adrian: “Those were the worst moments of my life.” Foto:
Christian O. Bruch / DER SPIEGEL
He sees that U.S. Marines and German paratroopers have taken cover behind their vehicles and a low concrete wall and that they are firing at their own allies, the men from the Afghan “Cobra” unit. Complete chaos.
The Bundeswehr and the Americans would later try to determine what actually happened. It is likely that a sniper from one of the high-rise buildings next to the airport fired a high-caliber weapon at the “Cobra” unit inside the airport, killing one of them. Exhausted and frightened, the Afghan fighters opened fire on the Americans and Germans, thinking the shot came from them. They return fire, and three Afghans are injured. A bloodbath is narrowly avoided.
Tobias, the KSK officer, hears the shooting from the German accommodations. He also has no idea what is happening, but as a professional military man, he can immediately tell that it’s not the normal shooting out in front of the gate, but a real firefight. He will say later that the sound actually put him in a better mood. Finally, something he recognized.
Jan Hendrik van Thiel doesn’t think the idea with the German helicopters is a good one, and the German envoy tells everybody who will listen. And also those who won’t. The classified protocol of the German government’s Afghanistan crisis team notes that van Thiel is “skeptical” of using Bundeswehr helicopters in Kabul. The Taliban, van Thiel says, according to the protocol, told the U.S. clearly that they wouldn’t tolerate convoys into the city or helicopters.
As the diplomat would later report, his security adviser, Fish, meets with Tobias, the KSK operative wanting to learn from Fish where a helicopter might be able to land near the embassy. Van Thiel has a pretty good idea what the KSK is planning: A cinematic commando action, perhaps even including descents from hovering helicopters of the kind they practice back home in Germany. He thinks the idea is crazy.
He knows from ambassador meetings at the airport that the Americans are strictly opposed to the use of helicopters in Kabul. First, the Taliban are no longer allowing any flights over the city, and second, U.S. representatives feel it is too risky. It is, after all, clear to everybody that the Western evacuation operation would come to an immediate end as soon as a helicopter were to crash or be shot down. Should the fate of tens of thousands of people be risked only to rescue a half dozen at best?
The two lightweight KSK helicopters have since arrived in Kabul and are ready for action. The commando wants to get moving, as does Arlt, and the defense minister is excited about the prospect as well. Only van Thiel is doing what he can to put a stop to it. He will later say that he approached the Americans and told them they would have to clearly tell Arlt that helicopter flights were out of the question. But the general apparently interpreted the message from the Americans differently. On a number of occasions, Arlt would tell Berlin that the Americans were on board.
Exhausted American soldiers Foto: Christoph Klawitter
The Germans shortly before their departure from Kabul on Thursday, August 26 Foto: Christoph Klawitter
In truth, the Americans are playing for time and delaying the deployment. They are wary of angering the Germans with a clear refusal. Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer has engaged in some personal lobbying with her Pentagon counterpart, Lloyd Austin, who ultimately gives the greenlight, but insists that exclusively American helicopters be used for Operation Gripping Eagle.
During the night of August 25, KSK troops and elite U.S. troops with the Delta Force fly in two American Chinook helicopters into the mountains near Kabul and evacuate a large family from Munich with roots in Afghanistan. It would be the only helicopter operation involving German commandos. The two German choppers are ultimately never used.
At the time of the mission, the defense minister and a few other cabinet members are having dinner with Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin. Inspector General Eberhard Zorn, with oversight over the entire Bundeswehr, is also there. He receives a text message from Kabul that the helicopters have returned safely. A participant in the meeting will later say that the chancellor looked at Kramp-Karrenbauer, gave her the thumbs up and said, “super!”
The clock is ticking mercilessly in Kabul. Thousands of Afghans are still waiting to be rescued, but the people trying to help them are running out of time. The Americans intend to leave the airport on August 31 at the latest. All other allies have been called on to end their missions at least 48 hours before that.
Van Thiel and Arlt continuously warn their supervisors in Germany of the approaching deadline, but, as both will later say, they feel as though they aren’t being taken seriously. In Berlin, some are still hoping that the Americans might push back their withdrawal by a couple of weeks.
On August 22, a classified protocol of a crisis group meeting records the German Defense Ministry’s position as follows: “Continuation of flight operations beyond August 31 extremely desirable.” Miguel Berger, the state secretary in the Foreign Ministry, is also optimistic. “It is unlikely that the U.S. would only extend evacuation operations for itself and not for its partner countries.”
One day later, the designated German ambassador in Kabul, Markus Potzel, tells the crisis group that there are “joint approaches” with the U.S. and Turkey to “extend flight operations beyond August 31.” On August 25, Potzel reports that the Taliban is interested in continuing operations at the airport.
In Kabul, they can merely shake their heads in disbelief. U.S. General Chris Donahue confers from the airport with the U.S. president, after which he informs his German counterpart Arlt that August 31 is the final day of operations and no extension is under consideration. Why doesn’t Berlin seem to understand?
Carefully, the Foreign Ministry approaches van Thiel to see if he and his team can imagine staying in Kabul even after the withdrawal of the Bundeswehr. The envoy speaks to each one of his diplomats and federal police officers individually to get their reactions. One after the other, they all respond with the same answer. “No.”
On Monday evening, van Thiel is at the airport when he receives a call. The “Taliban Express,” a bus convoy that the German diplomats have set up, is stuck at a Taliban checkpoint on the road from the city. His help is needed.
His bodyguards take him out in front of the main airport gate, where he finds two officers from the German paratroopers sitting on the bed of a pickup while their soldiers are taking a nap. They are supposed to receive the refugees from the convoy, but since it is currently stuck, there’s apparently nothing they can do.
The parking lot in front of the airport is controlled by the Americans, and the nearest Taliban checkpoint is around 50 meters away behind vehicle barriers and rolls of barbed wire. Colonel Webb, the U.S. officer in charge of the area, makes it clear that he is the one who maintains contact with the Taliban on the other side, and nobody else. Van Thiel will later describe him as being like Brad Pitt, just completely exhausted and, thus, almost like he is on drugs.
In the beginning, the Americans and the Taliban almost came to blows. Now it seems a modus vivendi has been found.
The envoy knows that he is completely dependent on this colonel for help, so he just stays in the parking lot talking for hours on end, through half the night. It is his only chance. The colonel talks about how great Germany is and tells van Thiel his life story. Every now and then, he wanders over to the other side of the front to negotiate with the Taliban. It emerges that the German buses are stuck at a different checkpoint, but the Taliban commander there is asleep and nobody wants to wake him.
Webb and his deputy describe to van Thiel how the Americans and the Taliban initially insulted and threatened each other, and almost came to blows. But now it seems that a modus vivendi has been found. At some point in the night, the Taliban commander wakes up and allows the German buses through. A similar drama plays out the next night – and the German envoy, with his tenacity, is ultimately able to get several hundred refugees to the airport.
Marc-André Hinzmann no longer knows exactly what came first: the dull impact or the airplanes. His recollection of his final minutes in Kabul are all mixed up in his head. It was probably the impact, says the young lieutenant in the military police.
On this Thursday afternoon, with the light slowly fading, they are standing with their gear on the tarmac where the refugees stood waiting for their flights out on previous days. Now, it is just Germans – men and women from the Bundeswehr, diplomats, BND people and federal police officers. Over the last 11 days, they have managed to get 5,347 people onto transport planes out of Kabul, including 140 local hires and their families. Now, it is their turn, and they are waiting for the last flight out to Tashkent.
When the plane finally takes off, young lieutenant Marc-André Hinzmann feels lighter than he ever has before. Foto: Cristian O. Bruch / DER SPIEGEL
Suddenly, Hinzmann feels this dull impact. He doesn’t know what has happened, but he sees a dark cloud of smoke rising from the Abbey Gate, and then he hears sirens and sees American soldiers running. At this moment, as he would later recall, the first A400M is on the approach before aborting the landing at the last moment and thundering over the heads of the waiting Germans.
Hinzmann’s initial thought, according to his recollection of the incident, is that they will have to keep waiting for several more hours. But he is immediately proven wrong, with the next two planes approaching the runway. They land so close together that Hinzmann is concerned they might collide on the runway. A short time later, a fourth plane lands.
Hinzmann’s comrades are following German news reports on their mobile phones. A suicide attack at the Kabul airport has killed and injured a number of people. Later, they will learn that almost 200 Afghans lost their lives at Abbey Gate, along with 13 U.S. soldiers and two British paratroopers.
Around 200 Afghans, 13 American soldiers and two British paratroopers were killed in a suicide attack at Abbey Gate. Foto: REUTERS / Handout . / AAMAJ NEWS AGENCY / REUTERS
As the planes taxi up to the group, Hinzmann checks to see if his men are with him, and then he takes off. He has no time to glance at the cars carrying the wounded as they speed past to the Norwegian field hospital. He only sees the backpack of the soldier in front of him.
He runs behind him all they way to the waiting plane, its rotors still spinning. The noise is deafening, but Hinzmann will later only remember sprinting up the ramp and throwing himself onto the floor of the aircraft next to his comrades.
He is hardly in the plane before it begins taxiing. Hinzmann feels a breath of hot air and lifts his head from his lying position. The loading ramp is still open and he can see the brown mountains of Kabul passing by outside and the paratroopers with their weapons at the ready standing on the open ramp to secure the rear of the plane. The powerful engines rev up and the heavy A400M begins speeding down the runway.
When the plane takes off, he feels lighter than he ever has before, he will later recall. Hinzmann is lying between his men on the steel floor of the transport plane, which is ascending steeply. He has survived, the 11 days in Kabul. His first mission abroad. His eyes close and the young lieutenant falls asleep.
Dead and wounded in the Abbey Gate attack are taken to a hospital in Kabul. Foto: Andrew Quilty / Andrew Quilty / Agence VU pour Le Monde
Pallbearers carry the coffins of U.S. service members killed in the Abbey Gate attack. Foto: All mauritius images / mauritius images / American Photo Archive / Alamy / Alamy Stock Photos
Read Part I and Part II of the series