Letter from Berlin Germany Confronts the Meaning of War

For years, Germans were just fine thinking of Afghanistan as merely a reconstruction effort -- and their political leaders were happy to keep that misconception alive. But since the bombing in Kunduz that killed several civilians, all of that has changed. Now the country is being forced to admit to itself that it's at war.


Afghan villagers laying to rest some of those who died in the Sept. 4 air strike near Kunduz.

Afghan villagers laying to rest some of those who died in the Sept. 4 air strike near Kunduz.

It is rare that one can pinpoint the exact moment when a country's geo-political identity, built up over years of tentative forays onto the global stage, comes unravelled.

But for Germany, that moment is easily identifiable. At precisely 1:50 a.m. local time on Sept. 4, 2009, two 500 pound bombs, dropped seconds earlier from a pair of NATO F-15 fighter jets, came crashing down on a low sandbank in the middle of the Kunduz River in Afghanistan.

Ordered by a German commander on the ground, the bombs slammed into a large crowd of locals, many of them there to collect gasoline from two tanker trucks which had become stuck in the soft sand after having been hijacked by Taliban insurgents just hours before. Up to 142 people were killed and several of them, perhaps dozens, were civilians.

Germans, of course, have slowly become aware that their soldiers -- after eight years of participation in NATO's Afghanistan mission -- are exposed to the kind of danger they haven't experienced since World War II. Nevertheless, the country has steadfastly refused to address the true, violent nature of the deployment -- and politicians in Berlin have preferred to downplay the mission. The country, in short, has never acknowledged that it is at war.


As a result, the fireballs of Kunduz, the largest German-ordered attack in the country's postwar history, stand as a repudiation of all that modern-day Germany had come to believe about its role in military missions abroad.

"The German government tried from the very beginning to present the Afghanistan mission differently from how it really was," Henning Rieke, a security expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Berlin wanted to focus on civilian reconstruction free from contamination from the brutal altercations in southern Afghanistan. It was something of a protective lie to keep those Germans quiet who don't support the mission."

The reflex runs deep. Indeed, in the hours and days immediately following the attack, Berlin seemed keen to continue with business as usual. When the bombs fell, Merkel and her cabinet were out on the campaign trail ahead of general elections, which took place on Sept. 27. Then-Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung maintained for days that no civilians had been killed --- despite almost immediate evidence to the contrary -- and continued his bicycle tour through his constituency. While on a campaign swing through her own voter district on the Baltic Sea coast, Merkel sought to satisfy her own thirst for information on Kunduz by surfing Google for news on her smart phone.

It was only on Sept. 6 that Merkel made her first public comments on the Kunduz bombing, fully 50 hours after the incident. Two days later, Merkel went before German parliament, the Bundestag, to deliver a governmental policy statement on Afghanistan.

'Failure of Political Leadership'

After almost four years in the Chancellery, it was the first time that Merkel had ever held a governmental policy address before parliament which focused exclusively on Germany's engagement in Afghanistan.

"What has happened is a failure of political leadership," Winfried Nachtwei, a Green Party security expert who retired from the Bundestag at the end of 2009 after 15 years as a parliamentarian, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "When we are talking about war and peace, it is no longer up to the respective cabinet minister. Such a thing is fundamentally up to the chancellor."

Nachtwei was a member of the parliamentary Defense Committee when the bombs fell in Kunduz. He says that the committee received its first briefing on the incident four days later -- adding that it quickly became clear that the information provided in the briefing was only a fraction of what the government knew by then. "Merkel should have put the information on the table, open to the public," he said.

Germany's road to Kunduz started in 1999. While the Bundeswehr had taken part in a handful of small humanitarian missions prior to that date, it was the participation of the German air force in NATO's attack on Serbia in defense of Kosovo that marked Germany's most significant break from decades of pacifism. Both that mission and the decision to join NATO in Afghanistan in January 2002 were preceded by a great deal of hand-wringing in the country, as Germans got used to the idea of sending soldiers into harm's way.

Caught Off Guard

But the slow transformation of Afghanistan from -- for Germans stationed in the north, at least -- a relatively safe reconstruction mission to one involving almost daily contact with belligerent Taliban forces has caught the country off guard.

Kunduz is particularly difficult for Germany not only because of the high number of civilian casualties, but also because it was the result of a series of errors and apparently deliberate disregard of NATO rules of engagement. In calling for the air strike to destroy the tankers, Col. Klein reported enemy contact -- required for authorization of such an attack -- despite there having been none. In forming his assessment of the situation, he relied on the information of a single witness.

The fact that Klein's air controller (known as "joint terminal attack controller" in NATO parlance) apparently misled the American pilots flying the two F-15 fighters is particularly damning. He told one of the pilots, who goes by the handle Dude 15, that they "had 'intel that all individuals down there' were insurgents." Yet a secret NATO report on the incident, which SPIEGEL has obtained, indicates that the German army had received information that at least one of the tanker drivers was still alive.


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