Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Germans agonise over Kunduz air strike

December 18, 2009

German soul searching about the September air strike in Afghanistan that killed civilians contrasts starkly with the greater acceptance of what is sometimes called “collateral damage” in other countries, such as the United States.

Politicians here in Berlin have been backing away from their original robust defence of the strike in the last few weeks as more information has come to light about the circumstances of the German order to call in a U.S. F-15 fighter jet to hit two hijacked fuel trucks near Kunduz on Sept. 4.

Afghan officials say the bombardment killed 30 civilians and 69 Taliban.

afghantankerIn the furore about the handling of the strike, cabinet minister Franz Josef Jung, who was defence minister at the time, and the head of Germany’s armed forces, have had to resign. The pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel is mounting and new Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg may yet have to go.

The strike was the most deadly operation involving German troops since World war Two and particularly embarrassing because Berlin has all along stressed NATO‘s mission must focus on reconstruction as well as fighting and said the battle is for hearts and minds.

German soldiers, irritated by a lack of public support and by the political debate going on in Berlin, are deployed mainly in northern Afghanistan and the parliamentary mandate for 4,500 soldiers does not let them fight in the more dangerous South.

Although they are the third-biggest force and have lost some 36 soldiers, there is a broad perception that German soldiers are not taking the heat as much as their U.S. and British counterparts. One of their most deadly encounters came in 2007 when three soldiers were killed not in a fierce firefight but when they went to buy a fridge at a Kunduz market when a suicide bomber hit.

It must be particularly galling to NATO and the United States that the German-ordered strike followed a change in tactics announced by U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal who realised that soarling civilian death tolls from U.S. and NATO strikes had cost them the support of many Afghans.

The storm over the botched strike underscores Germans’ strong pacifist streak. Most Germans want their soldiers to come home, making it tough for Merkel to sell voters an increase in troop levels.

The memory of defeat and destruction in World War Two has left Germans extremely reluctant to engage in military action.  It was only a decade ago that German soldiers participated in their first foreign combat mission since 1945. Guttenberg is the first senior official to liken the Afghan mission to war.

Attacking other than in self-defence is particularly sensitive.

Originally, Berlin said the tanker strike was needed to protect German soldiers from possible suicide attacks by Taliban fighters — an acceptable reason to most Germans. But now Guttenberg has acknowledged that Taliban militants, as well as the two tankers, had been targeted — in other words, this was not just about self-defence.

That, argue opposition lawmakers, may breach the parliamentary mandate under which German troops have been sent to Afghanistan.

Germany has said it will pay compensation to victims’ families. But whether many Afghans are even aware of the hand-wringing going in Berlin is another matter.

It does not look as if there will be a quick end to the debate in Berlin but in spite of the row, it will be tough for Merkel to decline NATO’s request to send more troops.

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