Escalation Desired Germany Intensifies Mission in Afghanistan
The German-ordered air strike that led to civilian casualties in Afghanistan in early September was more than an aberration by a Bundeswehr officer. The German government and the military leadership have long supported taking a tougher approach against the Taliban.
He said nothing about the crux of the matter. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was standing in the German parliament, the Bundestag, giving a speech that was filled, as usual, with well-made sentences, and yet it resolved nothing.
His appearance in the Bundestag last Wednesday had been preceeded by reports that morning that Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the former inspector general of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, had accused the defense minister of "not telling the truth."
It was a declaration of war, an outrageous move for a senior military commander to be making against his defense minister. In his speech to the Bundestag, Guttenberg could have dismissed the accusation, but he didn't. Instead, he attacked the opposition while saying nothing about Schneiderhan's central charge.
Officials with the Defense Ministry are now claiming that Schneiderhan and Peter Wichert, a state secretary in the defense ministry, concealed the fact that there were other reports on the Kunduz bombing (in addition to the NATO report Guttenberg already had) when the defense minister specifically asked the two men about the existence of such reports in a meeting on Nov. 25. In an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Schneiderhan rejected this claim, saying: "With regard to the afternoon of the 25th, he is not telling the truth."
Both Schneiderhan and Wichert have since been dismissed. But Guttenberg will not be able to remain in office for long if it turns out that he lied about his conversation with the highest-ranking soldier in the Bundeswehr. For the time being, however, it remains a matter of one man's word against another's.
It is now up to the Bundestag Defense Committee, which announced last Wednesday that it would also serve as investigative committee in the Kunduz scandal, to determine who is telling the truth. The committee plans to hear testimony from Guttenberg and Chancellor Angela Merkel soon, and a civil trial could ensue. Meanwhile, Schneiderhan has stated that he had not authorized the publication of the remarks he was quoted as saying.
The committee will also have to determine what really happened in the early morning hours of Sept. 4, when German Colonel Georg Klein ordered an air strike against Taliban fighters gathered around two kidnapped tanker trucks that resulted in numerous civilian casualties.
A Whitewashing Campaign
The incident also marked the beginning of a massive campaign to cover up and whitewash what actually happened in Kunduz. Not a single politician or senior military official told the public the full truth. The subject was to be kept off the radar during Germany's fall parliamentary election campaign, so as not to ruffle the feathers of an already skeptical electorate. Now the incident has been magnified to a far greater extent than would have been the case if those involved had decided to come clean with the public in the first place.
This was precisely what the chancellor had promised voters: that nothing would be withheld or sugarcoated. Precisely the opposite occurred, resulting in a disaster for German democracy.
There are three phases to the Klein case, and new details are emerging almost daily. Each phase is explosive in its own right, and each illustrates the extent of Germany's misgivings over going to war, any war.
The main phase consists of the hours between the kidnapping of the tanker trucks and the air strike. New information suggests that there was even disagreement between the assessments of Colonel Klein and his forward air controller during this phase.
Retooling from a Reconstruction Team to a Combat Force
The preliminary phase began roughly in the fall of 2008. The events leading up to Sept. 4, 2009 show that the Bundeswehr in Kunduz, responding to political pressure, had gradually transformed itself from a reconstruction team to a combat force. For this reason, Klein's fatal order cannot be treated as an isolated aberration.
The follow-up phase began immediately after the air strike. According to the latest information, the Bundeswehr immediately began its efforts to cover up the incident.
In the NATO investigative report, which deals with the main phase, the forward air controller, whose code name was "Red Baron 20," said on the record that he and Colonel Klein had had differing assessments of the situation. According to his statement, on the night of Sept. 4 he and Klein were sitting in the German operations center in Kunduz, where Red Baron was responsible for contact with the American "Trinity" air operations center. The third officer in the room was Captain N., who was in charge of intelligence operations in Kunduz.
At 12:48 a.m., an American B-1 bomber that was circling above the tanker trucks sent a radio message consisting of the word "Bingo." This meant that it was time for the aircraft to refuel. Red Baron requested other aircraft, but the American air command center replied that it could not provide air support unless there were "troops in contact," that is, German soldiers in contact with the enemy.
It was in that moment that the subsequent course of the night would be decided. If Klein had told the Americans the truth, there would not have been air strike.
Red Baron later told the NATO investigative team that Klein had repeatedly kept him out of the loop on that evening, either disappearing into another room or whispering something to Captain N. That was what happened after the B-1 bomber had left the scene, according to Red Baron, who told the NATO investigators that Klein and Captain N. had discussed the situation privately for a few minutes and then reached a decision: Colonel Klein would have the forward air controller report that there were indeed "troops in contact" and request air support. He did so, and soon two F-15 fighter jets were dispatched to the scene.
According to the NATO investigative report, Red Baron testified, on Sept. 26, that he had not believed that the situation posed an immediate threat, nor did he believe that it was "necessary to report troops in contact." The investigators asked Red Baron why he had not raised an objection to stop Klein. The forward air controller replied: "I am a soldier, and he is my commander."
Red Baron was apparently also unsure whether the people crowded around the tanker trucks were only Taliban. The NATO report states that the Bundeswehr's Afghan informant had reported that the only people at the scene were insurgents, but that Red Baron had considered the information "questionable."
At 1:18 a.m., the American pilots wanted to know what had happened to the drivers of the kidnapped trucks. At that point, the Afghan informant had already reported that one of the drivers had been shot and killed, but that the other one was still alive and had merely been beaten by the Taliban. Nevertheless, Red Baron's response to the Americans' question was that he had no information about the fate of the drivers. The US pilots, concluding that no innocent civilians would be killed on the ground, released their bombs.
Why did Klein lie? He has not commented on the incident yet. Until Sept. 4, he was not seen as a reckless man, but as a model officer. Could it be that he felt a need to act in accordance with political wishes? There is a history leading up to his order to bomb the tanker trucks that suggests that this could be the case.
Two hundred well-trained and well-equipped soldiers, members of the Bundeswehr's Quick Reaction Force, or QRF, left Germany for Afghanistan in June 2008. They were being sent to replace a group of Norwegian troops, and their mission was to wage offensive war against insurgents. "We are not talking about patrols and evacuations, but about offensive operations," said Birgit Homburger, the defense policy spokesperson of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) parliamentary group at the time.
"QRF is not PRT," said then Bundeswehr Inspector General Schneiderhan, putting it in a nutshell. The PRT, or Provincial Reconstruction Team, is the name used to describe the bulk of Bundeswehr troops in Kunduz. Its mission is to provide the Afghans with reconstruction assistance. This does not apply to the QRF, whose purpose is to attack members of the Taliban. Despite the QRF's obvious combat orientation, the German government and representatives of all parliamentary groups, with the exception of the Left Party, approved the mission.
In the coming months, the combat unit -- which was in fact stationed in the relatively quiet Mazar-e-Sharif -- was needed more and more frequently in the Kunduz area, where "incidents affecting security" were becoming more common.
On Oct. 20, 2008, two German soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing.
On Oct. 21, two state secretaries, August Hanning of the Interior Ministry and Peter Wichert of the Defense Ministry, traveled to Afghanistan, where they remained until Oct. 25.
'It Cannot Go On Like This'
When the two Germans met with Afghan National Security Advisor Zalmay Rassul, they wanted to know "why known backers of the attacks on German police officers and soldiers were not being called to account." Their words carried an unspoken threat: We will take matters into our own hands, if necessary.
Back in Berlin, Wichert scheduled an unusual meeting. He asked representatives of the Chancellery, the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, to attend a confidential meeting at the Defense Ministry. The attendees were contacted by telephone. There was no written invitation. The meeting revolved around two concrete questions: Who was behind the attacks in Kunduz? What could the German government do against the backers of those attacks?
"It cannot go on like this. I'm very concerned," said Hanning, who, together with Wichert, had convened the meeting and was reporting from Afghanistan. "The situation in and around Kunduz is far more dramatic than the public believes," he told the group. Hanning, intent on hunting down the Taliban backers, favored a tougher approach. From his perspective, for German troops the conflict boiled down to either hunting or being hunted.
Armin Hasenpusch, the BND's vice president for military affairs, summarized the situation as his organization saw it. On a colorful chart prepared by the BND to depict the region surrounding Kunduz, an oval area shaded in green identified the sphere of influence of an important commander in northern Afghanistan, whose name is on the NATO troops' wanted lists: Mullah Shamsuddin. He's an experienced Pashtun commander who controlled the surrounding villages and had ordered girls' schools there closed a few months earlier. The mullah is a member of the so-called Northern Afghanistan Shura Council, a shadow government appointed by the Taliban leadership in Pakistan.
From Bridge Builders to Combat Soldiers
The group of senior German government officials would convene several times after that initial meeting, always at the Defense Ministry, and it introduced an unspoken paradigm shift: Bit by bit, the bridge builders of the PRT were to become combat soldiers.
The German position shifted a little further in early May. The BND had located a local Taliban leader named Abdul Razeq, and its agents knew where he was and what he was planning. Razeq, who apparently headed one of the local terrorist cells, was believed to be responsible for various attacks on the Germans. The Bundeswehr knew that it could catch him, but it had to be interested in catching him. Until then, it had had no interest in Razeq.
Then things changed. This time the Bundeswehr sent out its KSK special forces unit. Sixty kilometers (37 miles) southeast of Faizabad, in northeastern Afghanistan, the elite unit stormed a farmhouse and then chased Razeq as he fled into the mountains, where he was caught. The Germans then flew Razeq to Kabul on board a Transall military transport aircraft and turned him over to a special prosecutor.
By now it was clear that the Germans had changed their position. Now they were hunting the Taliban.
Meanwhile, back in Berlin, the defense ministry and senior military officials were hard at work to ensure that German soldiers would be capable of engaging in combat.