Afghanistan Crisis

As situation in Afghanistan unravels, Germany's veterans struggle with mission's fate

Published : September 01, 2021 20:08 IST
Since the Taliban seized power, many Bundeswehr soldiers have felt that their deployment in Afghanistan was in vain.

Jenni Bruns found the images of the Taliban's invasion of Kabul hard to bear.

"I'm not doing well at all," the former soldier says on the phone. In 2010 she was deployed to Afghanistan. In an outpost in the north of the country, she worked to manage the treatment of water. While there she witnessed attacks by the Taliban and saw comrades wounded and killed. After returning to Germany, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since then she has suffered nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks. "I sacrificed my health for this mission," Bruns says.

The fact that the Taliban now appear to be undoing everything that international troops had achieved is a great burden for soldiers like Bruns. "I'm currently struggling with an enormous increase in flashbacks and insomnia," says the 36-year-old. The brain reproduces traumatic experiences in flashbacks. "I often see a lot of blood again, feel the heat, I taste the sand on my tongue," she says. "I just had therapy and we talked about retraumatization."

'Thunderstorm of emotions'

Bruns is not alone in her experience. "The failure of the international military mission is a big setback for the traumatized," says Bernhard Drescher. As a soldier, he was deployed abroad three times in the Balkans. Today he heads the Association of German Veterans (Bund Deutscher EinsatzVeteranen), which advises and supports those injured in action.

Since the Taliban quickly regained control of Afghanistan, the veteran association's phones haven't stopped ringing. Many callers are stunned and angry. "Now they're questioning the point of it all: Was it all for nothing?" says Drescher. Many of the 160,000 German soldiers who were deployed in Afghanistan are currently experiencing "a thunderstorm of emotions," he says.

A lot of people on the line just want to talk, let off some steam and then recover. "But it's very bad for someone who is traumatized,” says Drescher. The feeling that all personal sacrifices were in vain could undo the successes achieved in therapy. At the moment, the association's volunteers are "at their limit" because there are so many inquiries.

But the association is committed to not leaving anyone alone to handle a mental health emergency. "If so desired, our volunteers are personally on someone's doorstep within 48 hours at the very latest. And in even less time in large cities."

Anger and sadness after mission

Bruns finds it helpful to talk about her feelings and write down her thoughts. When she sees what's happening in Afghanistan, what she feels most of all is anger. The withdrawal of the international troops was "completely hasty" and "very rash," she says. "The fact that the Taliban are now going from house to house and searching homes makes me speechless, infinitely sad and angry." She also thinks of the local staff, women and children who stayed behind.

During the 20-year operation, there was a lack of foresight and sustainability, she says. For example with the training of the Afghan army, which offered little resistance to the Taliban as they advanced. "You want to see a meaning in what you've done. And I no longer see that with regards to this mission."

Bruns has also found herself thinking of the families of comrades who lost their lives: "Of course you ask yourself: Were 59 German soldiers killed in Afghanistan for nothing?"

Lessons learned?

The Defense Ministry actually wanted to ask itself these and other questions in August and had invited politicians, experts and soldiers to an event to exchange of views on the Afghanistan mission. A military tattoo was also due to be held in front of the Reichstag building — a closing roll call for the Afghanistan mission. Bruns would have been a guest of honor there. Due to the tumultuous events in Kabul, both events were canceled.

Nevertheless, the processing and evaluation of the operation shouldn't be put on the back burner, Afghanistan veterans have warned. Otherwise the same mistakes could be repeated in other missions, such as the Bundeswehr's mission in Mali.

Bruns is also calling for the military to candidly take stock of the two-decade mission. And if that only happens after Germany's federal election in September, those responsible should still be held accountable. "Time has to be taken to do it, to be honest and admit mistakes."

Operation with long-term consequences

The Association of German Veterans believes the Afghanistan mission will keep German society busy for a long time to come. Mental scars in particular often only manifest themselves years after an assignment, says Drescher, pointing not only to PTSD, but the entire range of mental illnesses.

Many of those affected are no longer with the Bundeswehr at the time of diagnosis and therefore can't rely on help from fellow troops. "They're definitely going into a second war — the war of managing their well-being and caring for themselves."

Bundeswehr: 'No more calls than usual'

According to Germany's defense ministry, a good 300 soldiers who were in Afghanistan were newly diagnosed with mental illnesses in 2020. The Bundeswehr has long been running a trauma hotline that people affected by PTSD can call around the clock. At the moment, there are no more calls than usual, a defense ministry spokesman told DW.

The veterans' association, however, has had a markedly different experience. And according to Drescher, it's only a matter of time before the number of those looking for help increases: "According to our observations, it takes five to seven years before people ask for help. That means there's another wave from the Afghanistan mission heading our way."

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