Merkel Cabinet Reshuffle Minister Jung Resigns amid Afghanistan Airstrike Scandal
Labor Minister Franz Josef Jung resigned from Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet on Friday. The former defense minister stumbled over his handling of a controversial airstrike in Afghanistan in September. Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen will take over for him.
Former German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung spent Thursday trying to hold on to his position as labor minister. But on Friday, after widespread calls that he throw in the towel, he gave in. Ulrich Wilhelm, the government's spokesman, confirmed before gathered journalists in Berlin that Jung will no longer be a part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet.
On Thursday evening, Jung had defended his handling of a controversial air strike in Afghanistan in September. But his defense appeared to rely on his not having read important documents related to the attack before he passed them along to NATO, leading to an increase in opposition calls for his head. The defense committee in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, is set to meet to discuss the scandal.
In a brief statement on Friday, Jung said he was taking "political responsibility" for having misinformed the German public due to, he claims, a lack of knowledge regarding civilian casualties stemming from a Sept. 4 airstrike Afghanistan. He repeated his Thursday claim that he had "correctly informed both the public and the parliament" to the best of his knowledge at the time.
Germany's top soldier, Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and Deputy Defense Minister Peter Wichert, resigned on Thursday. Having taken over the Defense Ministry in 2005, Jung moved over to head the Labor Ministry following Merkel's re-election in September. His Friday resignation came after just 30 days at his new job.
His announcement came afer a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday morning. The two are reported to have agreed that his resignation was necessary because he would not be able to give the job in the Labor Ministry his full attention in the light of the likely parliamentary enquiry.
The furore centers on Jung's immediate claims following the Sept. 4 airstrike that no civilians had been killed. At the time, he announced that it was only members of the Taliban who had been killed when a German colonel called in a US air strike on two tankers that had been seized by the insurgents in Kunduz, near a German military base. However, it has subsequently emerged that civilians were most likely among the victims, with estimates ranging from 17 to 142 casualties.
Jung said on Thursday that he had told the public and parliament what he knew at the time regarding the events in Afghanistan. But a Thursday report in the tabloid Bild suggested that reports about civilian casualties had reached his ministry by the evening of Sept. 4, reports that he then forwarded to NATO headquarters. He claimed on Thursday that he did not read the report before sending it further and had not knowingly lied to the German public and parliament.
The report quoted by Bild stated that "six patients aged from 10 to 20 years" lay in a hospital in Kunduz. There was also talk of the bodies of two teenagers. At the time Jung said that the German military had no knowledge of any civilian casualties. On Sept. 8 he quoted to parliament from a report from the Bundeswehr to Operational Command which included a letter sent by the Governor of Kunduz to Afghan President Hamid Karzai stating that all the dead belonged to the Taliban. On Thursday Jung once again referred to this report that included the letter.
Gregor Gysi, leader of the far-left Left Party, was quick to attack the former defense minister for this. "How can you release something, without having read it?" he asked. "What criteria do you use to release them?" On Friday Bild asked "Can it really be possible that only one of these reports reached Jung -- but that all the other (critical) reports did not?"
The debacle has made things difficult for Germany's new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He is reported to have "exploded" when he first learned of the report -- when he was contacted by Bild on Wednesday for a comment. He immediately called in the General Inspector Schneidhan to see if he was aware of the report. Once it was clear that he had known about it, there was little choice but for him to resign. Peter Wichert, the deputy defense minister, was also fired.
Guttenberg was in effect left hanging by his staff. After coming into office, the young minister had quickly said he regretted any civilian casualties but stated that, having seen the NATO report into the incident, the air strike had been "appropriate militarily." He now says he may have to reassess that statement.
It is now appears that the Bundestag's defense committee will establish a parliamentary investigation into the affair. On Friday, ahead of a special sitting of the defense committee, Guttenberg promised full cooperation with any enquiry.
On Friday afternoon it was announced that current Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen is to take over at the Labor Ministry. She will be replaced by the relatively unknown Kristina Köhler at the Family Ministry.