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Kunduz Aftershocks: Pressure Mounts on Germany's New Defense Minister

The German-ordered bombing of two tankers hijacked by the Taliban has already cost one Berlin minister his job. Now, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg may be in the hotseat. Plus, new reports indicate that Merkel's government knew more before the election than it let on.

Facing the press last week: Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Zoom
DPA

Facing the press last week: Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was, no doubt, hoping that the resignation of Labor Minister Franz Josef Jung last Friday was the end of the scandal surrounding the early September bombing of two tanker trucks in Afghanistan at the behest of a German commander there. But even as Merkel quickly reshuffled her cabinet to fill the hole left by Jung, shockwaves from the incident continue to rock Berlin. And now, Jung's successor, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, finds himself on the defensive.

The reason stems from comments he made directly after taking over the Defense Ministry. In a Nov. 6 press conference, he said that Colonel Georg Klein, the German commander who ordered the attack, had had no choice given the danger that the Taliban, which had hijacked the two tankers, posed to German troops. He also said the attack was "militarily appropriate."

In an interview with the tabloid Bild on Monday, though, Guttenberg appears to have begun the process of distancing himself from his initial show of support for Klein. "If one has to correct oneself based on new facts that I didn't have at the time, then it will be done," he said. "It is clear that mistakes were made on site, both before and after the airstrike."

Bodies of Two Teenagers

The attack took place in Kunduz on Sept. 4 and killed several civilians, probably dozens, with some estimates indicating that more than 150 may have lost their lives. It was the largest German-ordered attack since World War II. But for days after the attack, Jung insisted that only Taliban fighters had been killed and that there had been no civilian casualties. Only after the district governor in Kunduz claimed that many children had been among the dead did Jung change his tune.

Last week, a report surfaced indicating that Jung's Defense Ministry knew about possible civilian casualties as early as the evening of Sept. 4. The report, as quoted by Bild on Thursday, said that "six patients aged from 10 to 20 years" were in a Kunduz hospital as a result of the attack. The report also made mention of the bodies of two teenagers. In a statement to Germany's parliament on Thursday evening, Jung said that he had forwarded that report on to NATO headquarters without having read it himself. On Friday, Merkel forced him to step down.

Guttenberg allegedly only learned of the report last Wednesday when he was called by Bild for comment. He immediately fired Deputy Defense Minister Peter Wichert and accepted the resignation of Germany's top soldier, Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan. He has promised full disclosure on the incident and told public television station ARD on Sunday that his ministry is "working feverishly."

'Confirmed'

Still, his unreserved backing of Klein has many scratching their heads this week. Under ISAF rules of engagement, Klein did not have the authorization to order the attack, which was carried out by an American F-15, if there was no clear and present danger to German troops. At the time of the attack, however, the hijacked tankers were stuck in the mud on a sandbank in the middle of the Kunduz River. According to an ISAF report on the incident, the American pilots offered to fly low over the tankers to disperse civilians who might have been present -- an offer Klein reportedly refused. When the pilots again asked for confirmation that the tankers posed an immediate threat, Klein responded, "confirmed."

The ISAF report indicates, however, that no German troops had approached the site from their nearby base to reconnoiter. An Afghan informant likewise telephoned Klein to tell him that it was likely that locals would be present with the intention of stealing the fuel in the tankers. It is information that certainly would have been available to Guttenberg prior to his Nov. 6 press conference.

Did the Government Know?

A Sunday evening report on the Web site of the Cologne daily Kölner Stadt-anzeiger is adding to Guttenberg's woes. The report alleges that the Chancellery, prior to German general elections on Sept. 27, came to the conclusion that the attack was in no way appropriate. Chancellery experts reached the assessment that the Sept. 4 attack was in not a necessity and that the incident could wind up in German courts.

Estimates as to the number of civilian casualties vary widely. A Bremen-based lawyer, Karim Popal, who grew up in Afghanistan, travelled to northern Afghanistan in an attempt to determine exactly how many civilians might have lost their lives. He told SPIEGEL that 139 people died with a further 20 missing. "I met a woman there," Popal told SPIEGEL, "who now must raise her six daughters alone. Such a family has no future in Afghanistan. For the Germans not to offer her support would be a crime."

cgh -- with reporting by SPIEGEL Staff

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