Afghan Strike Causes Tension Between U.S., Germany

By Frank Jordans and Jason Straziuso
Associated Press
Monday, September 7, 2009

KABUL, Sept. 6 -- An airstrike by U.S. fighter jets that appears to have killed Afghan civilians could turn into a major dispute between NATO allies Germany and the United States, as tensions began rising Sunday over Germany's role in ordering the attack.

Afghan officials say as many as 70 civilians were killed in the airstrike early Friday in the northern province of Kunduz after Taliban militants stole two tanker trucks of fuel and villagers gathered to siphon off gas.

Afghan and NATO investigations are just beginning, but German and U.S. officials already appeared to be trying to deflect blame.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the Taliban's possession of the tankers "posed an acute threat to our soldiers." German officials have said the tankers might have been used as suicide bombs.

"If there were civilian causalities or injuries, of course we deeply regret that. At the same time, it was clear that our soldiers were in danger," Jung said in comments to German broadcasters. "Consequently, I stand clearly behind our commander's decision" to order the airstrike.

Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the top U.S. and NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said German troops let too many hours pass before visiting the site of the bombing Friday.

He explained that it is important to hold the ground after a strike and determine what happened before the enemy delivers its own version of events.

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, visited the site Saturday where two charred trucks and yellow gas cans sat on a riverbed. He asked a top commander in Regional Command North about the response time.

"Why didn't RC-North come here quicker?" McChrystal asked Col. Georg Klein, the commander of the German base in Kunduz.

"I can honestly say it was a mistake," Klein answered, in a discussion witnessed by a reporter.

On Sunday, Smith said that in McChrystal's judgment the response time "was probably longer than it should have been." German troops in Afghanistan have long been criticized for avoiding combat operations, even as militants have increasingly infiltrated northern Afghanistan during the last year, destabilizing the once-peaceful region.

The stolen trucks were stuck on a riverbed outside Kunduz, and villagers -- either forced by Taliban militants or enticed by offers of free fuel -- gathered near them, even as U.S. jets patrolled.

German commanders watching images from the U.S. aircraft could see about 120 people, McChrystal said Saturday. The commanders decided that the people were militants and ordered the airstrikes, Smith said, even though images provided by the U.S. aircraft would have been grainy.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company