German Lawmakers Question Involvement in Afghan Airstrike

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 8, 2009 9:13 AM

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.

In a speech to parliament Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the possibility that civilians were harmed but said the identities of those hit were still unclear, the Associated Press reported. "We will not accept premature judgments," Merkel said, according to the wire service. She told parliament she deeply regrets any civilian casualties and supports a thorough investigation. But she also delivered a robust defense of a military mission that is unpopular at home.

Prosecutors in Potsdam said Monday that 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.

Pressure was mounting on 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.

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.

Markus Kaim, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that many legislators already distrusted Jung and that his shifting explanations had only worsened his standing.

"Some members of Parliament would like to kill Franz Josef Jung," he said. "He's more or less lying to the German Parliament and the German public."

For years, many German officials have criticized the Pentagon for relying on air power to attack the Taliban without sufficient regard for civilian casualties. But after the bombing in Kunduz, some lawmakers found themselves in the strange position of praising U.S. generals for their restraint while accusing German commanders of recklessness.

"The reaction of General McChrystal was very wise," Juergen Trittin, a senior legislator for the opposition Green Party, said in an interview. "He showed the seriousness of investigating the bombing, and he issued words of regret to the victims. I think he behaved correctly, and I do not understand the reaction of the German government. For a long time, we had wished for such a U.S. commander to be in place."

Regardless of whether most of those killed in the bombing were civilians or Taliban fighters, there was genuine shock among many Germans that one of their military commanders could have been responsible for an attack that killed so many people.

About 4,200 German troops are stationed in Afghanistan, the third-largest foreign contingent, after the those of the United States and Britain. But the German troops are generally restricted from engaging in combat operations and concentrate instead on civilian reconstruction programs.

The government approved sending troops to Afghanistan as part of a peacekeeping operation but officially says it is not involved in a war. The German constitution, adopted after the defeat of the Nazis, prohibits the country from going to war unless it or one of its allies is directly attacked by another state.

"In Afghanistan it is like a war, but for us it is not a war," said Walter Kolbow, a Social Democrat and longtime member of the defense committee in the German Parliament. "It is an important distinction."

The question of whether the mission is really a war peaked in July, after three German soldiers were killed during a clash with the Taliban. The debate is expected to intensify this month with national elections scheduled for Sept. 27.

"We need to realize that this is not a development aid mission in uniform," said Werner Hoyer, a senior legislator with the opposition Free Democrats. "It is a military mission."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company