North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

How Germany failed its local Afghan employees: An insider’s account

One former ‘local Afghan employee’ recalls his experiences working for the German military and looks at how recent events in Kabul could have been avoided

Mojib Atal
Mojib Atal
3 September 2021, 12.00am
Ex-local employees that foreign troops left behind are living in constant fear
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American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The US's 2001 military intervention in Afghanistan, often hailed as the ‘War on Terror’, paved the way for numerous international actors, including Germany, to actively engage in the subsequent state-building processes in the country.

Since the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan in May, several countries have announced their commitment to relocating their former Afghan employees. Although some European countries had in recent years already been working on special schemes granting asylum to a limited number of their former employees, they were reluctant to accept that all of their local employees in Afghanistan were exposed to real risk. In fact, there was an understatement of the gravity of the security situation in the country. Despite a request by the Afghan government for a temporary stop on involuntary return, the EU continued deportations of Afghan refugees whose asylum applications were rejected.

Germany’s local employees, for example, have long been categorized based on their vulnerability. Despite the dangers they were all exposed to, many will have been left behind today, after the country failed to bring all its former vulnerable employees from Afghanistan under the Taliban’s threat of arrest and persecution before the complete withdrawal of US forces by 31 August.

Germany deployed the second largest number of soldiers, around 150,000, to Afghanistan in the past two decades. It took responsibility for opening two main Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz, but its area of operation extended to Faizabad in the northeast – covering five provinces. Germany deployed its troops mainly to Kabul, Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif and became in charge of training and mentoring Afghan police.

The PRTs and their civilian partners such as the German development agency, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Federal Foreign Office hired thousands of Afghans in different roles to work for the German government.

An insider account

Before moving to Germany in 2015, I worked as a local employee for the German government in Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif. I remember how in 2013, before the handover of Kunduz Camp to the Afghan security forces, the German government was reluctant to think about the future of its former employees. I witnessed the moment former translators for the German military (Bundeswehr) realized that they would be left behind, and a group of 25 gathered in front of Kunduz camp to protest during the visit by Thomas de Maiziere, then Germany’s interior minister, and Guido Westerwelle, then the foreign minister. This pushed officials in Berlin to work more seriously on a special asylum procedure for the former employees of the Bundeswehr, with the Ministry of Interior and Federal Foreign Office dividing them into several categories (A, B, C and D) based on the risk they were exposed to.

However, the assessment of actual threat and risk posed to the local employees was not a transparent procedure and the eligibility criteria were classified as confidential Some of those who were in categories C and D, and are still in Afghanistan, were equally vulnerable as those in A and B, who have arrived in Germany. Former employees who have been recently evacuated or who are still struggling to come to Germany might be those who were once categorized as less vulnerable.

Asylum applications of my former colleagues were rejected for not being adequately at risk

After the so-called ‘Refugee Crisis’ in 2015 and the rise of a strong anti-immigrant stance in the German parliament, especially with the AFD party (Alternative for Germany), the right of asylum for former Afghan employees was restricted. For example, although the Federal Consulate General in Mazar-e Sharif was attacked and destroyed by the Taliban in November 2016, the asylum applications of several local staff, including some of my former colleagues, were rejected by the German officials for not being adequately at risk. Among them were translators, drivers and housekeepers, some of whom have been recently evacuated, while others are still waiting in Kabul

During my time working for the German government, I witnessed how when local staff reported personal security threats posed by the Taliban, they received advice from their German employers about security measures or relocation from provinces to Kabul, which was relatively safe. This was before 2015. After that, and with the increase in the number of asylum applications, when an Afghan employee reported a potential threat, the German employers tended to terminate the contract for safety reasons.

The case was then supposed to be sent to Berlin and the employee would be informed whether he or she was eligible to move to Germany. This seemed to be an effective strategy in order to discourage local staff from applying for asylum in Germany too. As the number of rejected applications increased, the local employees also learned to avoid reporting threats to their German employers in order not to lose their jobs. This led to a misleading picture about the safety of local employees and the overall security situation being depicted as ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ where Germany was engaged.

Insecurity

In addition, Germany’s relationship with its employees was complex on the ground too. For example, in Mazar-e Sharif before 2014, when the US was in charge of security of Camp-e Marmal, which was hosting the German army, its police contingents and diplomatic mission, the US security personnel were conducting security checks (clearance) on the local staff working in the camp. This procedure happened every six months to issue ID cards to the camp’s Afghan personnel, providing them with access to the camp.

The US security personnel collected the biometric data of local employees and when they were not convinced by the answers, the use of polygraph tests was also reported by the local staff. In several cases, Afghans were fired for reportedly dubious or contradicting personal data they had provided, which was simply because many Afghans did not have Afghan Tazkira (IDs) or did not remember their or their family members’ dates or places of birth.

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After a failed security clearance, an employee’s access to the camp was denied and their relationship with their employer could be ended without any chance to appeal. From a security perspective, these people were even considered a threat to the interests of the US and its allies.

It is not clear how many people have gone through such security and intelligence background checks, been fired, and applied for asylum in Germany. However, after reports about Taliban’s access to the biometric data collected by the US military and security agencies, concerns have increased about the former employees’ safety in the country.

Fear and Disappointment

In their campaign against foreign occupation, the Taliban warned Afghan public servants and local employees to stop working for a ‘puppet regime’ and ‘infidels’ in the country. And although they announced an amnesty, the Taliban are still widely mistrusted due to their notorious rule in the 1990s, as well as recent reports about them killing civilians and hunting for former employees who worked with NATO and the US forces. This has left little space for optimism. Despite the declared amnesty, former local employees of foreign troops and their close relatives are living in constant fear.

As the German embassy in Kabul was closed on 15 August and Germany’s evacuation flights ended on 26 August, thousands of former local employees of the German government who have been left behind, are expected to reach out to German embassies in Islamabad, Tashkent and Tehran. Crossing borders of a land-locked country controlled by the Taliban is highly risky for those whose biometric data might be easily accessed, or when they are carrying the documents required for German bureaucracy.

This situation could have been avoided if the asylum cases had been assessed properly, and local employees treated with trust and provided legal entry to Germany on time. But the politicization of the local employees scheme, influenced by the rise of the anti-immigration discourse since 2015, has hindered the entry of hundreds and maybe thousands of eligible Afghan employees to Germany, who are now left to fend for themselves.

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