Germany in Political Turmoil Over Ordering of Deadly Airstrike in Afghanistan

A German soldier leaves on a mission in Afghanistan's Kunduz province, where a strike Friday killed about 100 people.
A German soldier leaves on a mission in Afghanistan's Kunduz province, where a strike Friday killed about 100 people. (By Anja Niedringhaus -- Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BERLIN, Sept. 7 -- German lawmakers demanded explanations Monday for how and why their soldiers in Afghanistan, normally restricted to peacekeeping duties, triggered a NATO airstrike that killed approximately 100 people. Political fallout from the attack jolted Germany's election campaign just weeks before the vote and threatened to sour relations with the United States.

Aides to Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would address the German Parliament on Tuesday, as pressure mounted on her defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, who at first insisted that the attack killed only Taliban forces but later acknowledged that civilians were among the dead.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Potsdam said they were considering whether to open a homicide investigation into the decision by a German military commander to order the airstrike by a U.S. fighter jet, which blew up two hijacked fuel trucks and a crowd of bystanders early Friday in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.

U.S. and NATO officials have said the German decision to order the bombing was based on reports from a single Afghan informant and sketchy video surveillance, a possible violation of new NATO rules limiting the use of airstrikes. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has also questioned why German commanders stayed away from the bombing site afterward instead of sending a team to determine whether civilians had been killed.

German military officials have fumed at what they called unwarranted public criticism of their actions by U.S. and NATO officials, and were particularly irked at a decision by McChrystal's advisers to allow a Washington Post reporter to accompany him on a visit to Kunduz to investigate the bombing.

"It is improper for a NATO commander to put the safety and also the lives of German soldiers in danger by going public and prematurely giving the impression that civilians were killed," Harald Kujat, a retired general and former chief of staff of the German armed forces, told N24 television news. "I sincerely hope that the new NATO secretary general will have the spine and also the authority in leadership to call this general to order."

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark who took office as NATO's secretary general last month, has pledged a full investigation into the bombing. He has not commented on the disputes among NATO members, which intensified over the weekend.

On Saturday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the bombing "a big mistake." Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, said the airstrike was "a very, very sad event."

The comments angered German military officials, who pointed an accusatory finger back at their allies. "Foreign ministers from other countries should wait for the investigations," Christian Schmidt, the deputy defense minister, told German television network ZDF.

Schmidt also complained that other NATO members in Europe had failed to live up to their commitments to train the Afghan police and national army, a key component of NATO's strategy to defeat the Taliban.

"How can it be that, so far, half the police who go there are Germans?" he said. "The European partners clearly need to catch up."

Jung, the German defense minister, on Sunday called the bombing "absolutely necessary," saying his officers had "very detailed information" indicating that the Taliban planned to use the hijacked fuel tankers to attack a German outpost in Kunduz. He also said that "only Taliban terrorists" were killed, though he backtracked a day later and said civilians were among the dead.

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