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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 12:48 GMT
German army on Afghan charm offensive
By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Kunduz

German General Volker Barth (left) and Afghanistan's deputy defence minister
German forces are trying to forge links with the local people and troops
If you want to experience the beauty of Afghanistan, take a helicopter ride with the German army over the rolling hills near Kunduz.

The chopper flies low, just 40m (130ft) above the ground. Its back door is wide open, so that the guard - who is strapped in at the edge, feet dangling into the sky - can look out for danger.

The views are breathtaking - a kaleidoscope of icy slopes, grassy fields and wide, flowing rivers.

This is Germany's zone of responsibility in northern Afghanistan - one which nearly 3,000 German troops are battling to secure, not only with guns, but also goodwill.

Down on the ground, we join an armoured patrol on its way from Kunduz to Khanabad. A few days before, a German army unit was attacked on this road by Taleban. The aim of this mission, though, is not to hunt down insurgents - it is to build trust.

All the mullahs were so touched and saw that the Germans respect the old religions and traditions
Phillip Ackermann
German foreign ministry

Outside Khanabad's mosque, a German army commander inspects a new well. It is one of a string of development projects in northern Afghanistan which are being funded by the German government, and project managed by the army - turning German soldiers effectively into armed social workers.

"I think it's important to show people we're here to help them and not to occupy them," Lt Joerg Langer explained.

"We have different projects, in schools and elsewhere to assist the people so that they can build up their infrastructure."

Hearts and minds

Next the German soldiers dodge the horses and carts criss-crossing the centre of Khanabad and head to the market.

The German commander stops to chat to an Afghan shoemaker; he buys a dozen loaves of bread from the baker and a big bag of biscuits. It is a small price to pay for maintaining good relations with the local population.

A German soldier stares out over Afghanistan from a military helicopter
A ride over Kunduz is dramatic and scenic

"Winning hearts and minds is what our presence is all about," maintains Phillip Ackermann of the German foreign ministry.

He is civilian coordinator for Germany's reconstruction effort, working hand-in-hand with the military to build new roads, new bridges, new toilets - projects designed to convince often sceptical Afghans that the foreign community is here to help.

"Kunduz has an old madrassa, a religious school. We saw the conditions there for students are horrendous, so we decided to make a project with them and put in new washing facilities, bathroom, toilet and kitchen.

"And all the mullahs were so touched and saw that the Germans respect the old religions and traditions."

Local labour

Hiring local Afghans to help build the German military bases in northern Afghanistan - and even to guard the entrance to the camp in Kunduz - is another way of winning hearts and minds. Bashir Ahmedi, an 18-year-old student in Kunduz, believes the Germans have got right what the British and American soldiers in Afghanistan have got wrong.

"The British army, a bit, but the American armies more, in the south, already had a bad relation with people, not like the Germans," Bashir complained.

German troops in Afghanistan
German troops believe their softly-softly approach is working

"They didn't behave good in the first time and now people hate them in the south. When they wanted to find Taleban, they randomly got in the house of the people without permission.

"It happened repeatedly and it's against Afghan culture. This never happened in the north between Germans and northern people.

The Germans admit that the ethnic mix of northern Afghanistan, populated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, makes it easier to come to an understanding with the local community, than say for the British troops operating in the more hostile Pashtun-dominated south.

They also concede that Nato troops from Britain, America, Canada and Holland put themselves at much greater risk. But Germany remains reluctant to send its troops down south to back up Nato allies fighting the Taleban.

"We focus our work in the north and we do a good job in the north," General Volker Barth, commander of German troops in Afghanistan, told me.

"I feel for everybody who loses their life, whether a soldier or civilian, in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world. But we will carry on with our job here in the north as we want to avoid exactly what is happening in the south."

One of the German soldiers I met in Afghanistan summed up his country's position with a Prussian proverb: you can win a battle with guns, he told me, but you cannot conquer a country by force - for that you need to win hearts and minds.

That is Germany's mission - and one it is determined to see to the end.

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