Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan: Did the German Government Misinform the Country?

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A Thursday newspaper report accuses former German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, now Chancellor Merkel's labor minister, of having withheld information from parliament regarding a German-ordered air attack in Afghanistan which killed dozens of civilians. The opposition is demanding that Jung resign.

Former German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, who now heads up the Labor Ministry, had a long day on Thursday. Zoom
AP

Former German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, who now heads up the Labor Ministry, had a long day on Thursday.

That Thursday was going to be a difficult day for Germany's Labor Minister Franz Josef Jung became clear shortly after 9 a.m. this morning. In parliament, the debate over Germany's Afghanistan mission had just begun when Jung, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democats, rose from his seat and walked over to where Merkel was sitting. Merkel, though, shooed him away with a wave of her hand.

With a look of resignation, Jung made his way back to his spot, passing Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg on the way. Guttenberg didn't even so much as glance at Jung, who quietly sat down in his minister's chair.

Perhaps for the last time.

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On this Thursday, Jung was hit hard by his past. It was a past that he believed had faded forever: his unfortunate stint as defense minister. Once again, the devastating German-ordered air attack in Kunduz in early September, one which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, was back on the agenda.

The Bodies of Two Teenagers

It was placed there by the German tabloid Bild. The paper accused Jung's ministry of having withheld information on the civilian deaths. According to "classified reports" from the Bundeswehr obtained by Bild, it was clear from the beginning that not just Taliban fighters had been killed in the air raid. By the evening of Sept. 4, the day of the attack, reports had already reached mission headquarters in Potsdam that "six patients aged from 10 to 20 years" lay in a hospital in Kunduz. Children were injured. There was talk of the bodies of two teenagers. At the time, Jung said that the German military had no knowledge of any civilian casualties. Instead, he referred to Afghan information.

The accusations against Jung were levied on the day the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, was set to debate the extension of Germany's participation in NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. It is a mission that is already controversial, and not just within the opposition. Even within Merkel's coalition, skepticism is growing -- particularly given the ongoing lack of clarity regarding the future of a Western military mission fighting a seemingly endless war in a hopelessly corrupt country.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle opened Thursday's debate by saying "openness, transparency and honesty are the basis of trust. Government must also adhere to this truth in dealings with parliament." Most interpreted the statement as criticism of Jung, and the applause was loud and long.

The Berlin opposition has already made up its mind: If Jung deceived the public and the Bundestag, then he has to go. The Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens all agree. Furthermore, should he refuse to resign, the opposition is demanding a parliamentary investigation. "The recent revelations shine a new light on what happened in Kunduz," said SPD floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He added that information was "systematically withheld" from the public and the parliament.

'Not Fit to Carry On'

The Greens are just as pointed. "The Parliamentary Defense Committee must assemble a committee of inquiry to examine the reasons behind the bombing as well as the information policies of the federal government," Jürgen Tritten, Green Party floor leader, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "If Jung lied to the public, he's not fit to be a minister or carry on in his present capacity."

On Thursday, however, it didn't look as though Jung was planning to resign. In a brief morning statement to parliament, all he said was "I am committed to honesty and transparency." In an address before the Bundestag on Thursday evening, Jung insisted that he had acted correctly, saying he had passed on all that he knew at the time. He said he had always "informed the public and parliament about all that I knew." An unidentified CDU member in Berlin told Reuters that "a resignation is not in the works."

Perhaps not. But Merkel's government is increasingly distancing itself from Jung. Comments on Thursday by Volker Kauder, the floor leader for Merkel's conservatives in parliament, hardly sound like a vote of confidence. "Of course it is now necessary for Minister Jung to clearly state whether he knew or not," he told television station N24. Kauder added that he "expects a clear statement" on the issue. An FDP parliamentarian, who asked not to be identified, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that Jung "cannot stay. That is clear. Because then we'll have to wade through the manure until May." Voters in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia go to the polls on May 9 and both Merkel's conservatives and the FDP are loathe to do anything that might harm their chances for success in the poll.

Kauder, however, also seemed eager to give his party ally the benefit of the doubt. "I assume that, if Mr. zu Guttenberg wasn't informed, although he spoke about the incident when he took office, then Mr. Jung wasn't informed either." He went on to demand that the Defense Ministry be shaken up so that "such things can't happen again."

Emerging Unscathed

Soon after being sworn in, Guttenberg defended his predecessor's handling of the Kunduz incident. But on Thursday, the new defense minister took surprisingly swift action. Guttenberg informed the plenary session that Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the highest-ranking officer in Germany's armed forces, and Peter Wichert, a deputy defense minister, had taken responsibility for the affair and resigned. Many saw the move as an indirect confirmation of the accusations that have been levied at Jung and the German military.

Guttenberg also said that he wanted to re-examine the circumstances surrounding the air attack -- an attack that he defended just a few weeks ago. He also said that he had recently seen documents that had been withheld prior to the election.

His intention is clear: He wants to do what he can to emerge from the growing scandal unscathed. The chances of Jung doing the same, however, seem smaller than ever.

With reporting by Severin Weiland

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