Deadly Bombing in Kunduz German Army Withheld Information from US Pilots

As details from the deadly Sept. 4 bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan continue to emerge, it has become more apparent that German commanders both disregarded NATO rules of engagement and misled the US pilots who carried out the attack. One pilot says he would have refused to attack had he been told the truth.

Two Afghan policeman inspecting the site of the Sept. 4, German-ordered bombing in Kunduz. The attack killed numerous civilians, possibly dozens.
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Two Afghan policeman inspecting the site of the Sept. 4, German-ordered bombing in Kunduz. The attack killed numerous civilians, possibly dozens.

By and John Goetz


In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 4, 2009 bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan -- which saw a German-ordered attack result in the deaths of up to 142 people, many of them civilians -- it quickly became clear that NATO rules of engagement may have been flouted.

Now, SPIEGEL has learned that German commanders on the ground withheld important information from the US pilots above Kunduz -- information which, had it been available, might have led to the pilots' refusing to drop their payload.

One pilot, who goes by the handle Dude 15, told NATO investigators that, prior to the bombing, he had "an uneasy feeling about everything." He and the pilot of a second F-15 flying over Kunduz that night both "could tell the ground commander was really pushing to go kinetic" -- in other words, to bomb. He said they even considered breaking off the operation altogether.

The bombing took place after the Taliban hijacked two tanker trucks full of fuel. In an attempt to cross the Kunduz River, however, the two tankers became stuck in a sandbank in the middle of the night. Faced with no other alternative, the Taliban encouraged locals to come and fill up containers with the gasoline. Before long, dozens of people had gathered on the sandbank to take advantage of the situation.

'Strike Directly'

Dude 15 repeatedly suggested that he and the pilot of the second F-15 fighter fly low over the gathered crowd to frighten away civilians, should any be present. The response from the German base was clear: "Negative.... I want you to strike directly." The German commanders on the ground, Col. Georg Klein and his joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) objected, ordering the two pilots to remain out of earshot of those on the ground.

Crucially, when Dude 15 asked about the drivers of the two tankers, he was told that the German military had no information. Instead, the JTAC said that they "had 'intel that all individuals down there' were insurgents." A secret NATO report on the events leading up to the bombing indicates, however, that the German army had received information by the time of the bombing that at least one of the tanker drivers was still alive.

One of the US pilots told NATO investigators that, had he known that one of the tanker drivers was present in the target area, he would not have fired his weapons.

The exact chain of events leading up to the bombing -- and the reactions of German officials and politicians in the aftermath -- have become critically important in Germany as the country attempts to come to terms with the largest German-ordered military attack since World War II. For years, even as the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated, Berlin has sought to portray the Bundeswehr's involvement in the war-torn country as a humanitarian, reconstruction mission. The fact that a significant number of civilians were killed as the direct result of German battlefield errors has shocked the country.

Isolated From Checks and Balances

It has also cost a number of people their jobs. Franz Josef Jung, who headed up the Defense Ministry at the time of the bombing, had to resign from Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet in November -- he had moved over to the Labor Ministry following Merkel's re-election in late September. Furthermore, Germany's top soldier, Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and a key Defense Ministry Official were forced out by new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

Guttenberg himself has come under increased pressure as well due to his quick assessment, made soon after he was sworn in as Merkel's new defense minister, that the Kunduz bombing had been "militarily appropriate." His comments came despite having read the secret NATO report on the incident -- a report which SPIEGEL has obtained and which makes clear that numerous errors were made in the run-up to the bombing. He has since reversed that assessment, but remains under fire. A parliamentary investigative committee has recently begun work in Berlin in an attempt to shed light on the incident.

The secret NATO report into the incident also makes it clear that the involvement of Germany's special forces unit, Task Force 47, may have helped lead to the deadly bombing. According to the report, Col. Klein "isolated himself from the checks and balances" that generally govern such air strikes by conducting the operation from the Task Force 47 operations center, which is strictly separated from that of the Bundeswehr. Klein "failed to declare the specific rules of engagement he was using."

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