* German troops in Kunduz say enemy "getting better"
* Taliban steps up attacks to reclaim former stronghold
* Northern region serves as key supply route for NATO
By Sabine Siebold
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan, Oct 20 (Reuters) - German Lieutenant Jens U. marvels at how violent this lush corner of northern Afghanistan has become since his first deployment to the region in 2006.
Back then, Taliban fighters were a rare sight. His platoon could drive through the dusty streets of Kunduz and the green valley that surrounds it in lightly-armoured jeeps, without worrying too much about their safety.
"In those days, our only concern was cattle-herders who were paid to shoot off the odd rocket-propelled grenade in our direction," said the 27-year old platoon leader, whose full name the German military did not want used.
"Now we face an enemy that is using near-military tactics. They coordinate via radio, use night-vision equipment, set up ambushes and move around cleverly in small groups. The enemy is getting better."
Tucked under Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan, this city of nearly 100,000 and the steep mountains that rise up around it were mostly peaceful in the years after U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. Attacks were rare even as violence surged elsewhere in the country.
But over the past year, militants have staged a fierce bid to reclaim their former stronghold, turning Kunduz into one of the main fronts in the 8-year conflict and presenting German troops, who for years saw little combat in the north, with a daunting new challenge.
Of the 4,250 German soldiers participating in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, roughly one quarter are now stationed in a camp perched above the Kunduz River a few kilometres from the city.
Situated next to a military airport used by Soviet forces in the 1980s which is dotted with rusting helicopters from that era, the camp was built to accommodate about 500 troops.
Now it bursting with more than twice as many soldiers, some shifted from other German sites in the north in response to the deteriorating security situation around Kunduz.
Four-metre high blast walls have been built to protect the Germans and about 100 Belgian soldiers in the camp from the rising threat of rocket attacks, one of which left a gaping hole in the wall of the cafeteria where soldiers eat.
A total of 14 German soldiers have died in the Kunduz area in recent years. Last month a senior German officer called in an air strike which the Afghan government says killed 69 Taliban fighters and 30 civilians, the deadliest operation involving German troops since World War Two.
"THIS IS WAR"
Yet politicians in Berlin, including Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung, dispute that Germany is fighting a "war" in Afghanistan.
They paint the troop presence as a "stabilisation" mission and stress that the focus is on civilian reconstruction. This description is meant to reassure a public that remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of German troops in combat, almost 65 years after the end of World War Two.
But the situation in Kunduz tells a very different story.
"All the soldiers in my company agree that this is war," said Captain Thomas K., 31, who faulted politicians for not discussing the mission and its dangers more openly with the German public.
"Fighting is always bad and one should avoid it if at all possible. But here, in this case, it can’t be avoided. Definitely not."
His unit, an experienced group of 120 paratroopers based in Lebach, western Germany, had their first firefight within four days of starting their mission in Kunduz in mid-July.
Since then, Captain K. says they have exchanged fire with militants on nearly 20 occasions, sometimes for hours at a time.
Last month, a suicide bomber in a blue car packed with 120 kg of explosives, blew himself up next to their Dingo wheeled-tank, injuring five soldiers and a translator.
"The security situation in Kunduz has changed dramatically since we arrived," K. said. "The insurgents have changed their tactics and attacks on our soldiers have increased dramatically."
Kunduz was the first northern province to fall to the Taliban when they took control of Afghanistan in 1996. It was also the last major city to fall to U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces after the U.S. invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Insurgent activity in the region has grown partly because Kunduz lies on a new overland NATO supply route that stretches from Europe to Afghanistan, passing through Russia and central Asia.
Afghan fighters are now backed by Uzbek, Chechen and Arab militants who have brought their know-how from Iraq, German troops say. The Taliban has also found supporters in the remote Pashtun villages of the region, over which NATO and local forces exert little control.
Since the spring, German troops have been more aggressive in confronting their attackers. Earlier this year, the German government loosened rules which had prevented soldiers from shooting at enemy fighters unless they were fired on first.
Despite heightened risks of attack, the Germans continue to leave their camp on daily patrols, rumbling through the region around Kunduz for spans of up to a week, in the hope of keeping insurgents at bay and reassuring locals.
"We stand ready to fight," Thomas K. said. "We shoot back with everything we have. If we don’t get out and take them on, we’ll never be able to stabilise Kunduz."
(Writing by Noah Barkin; editing by David Stamp)