NATO's Secret Findings Kunduz Affair Report Puts German Defense Minister Under Pressure

The secret NATO report on the Kunduz affair already contained all of the details that Germany's new defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, claims he did not become aware of until later. Why did he initially deem the deadly airstrike "militarily appropriate" and then change his mind?

By John Goetz, Konstantin von Hammerstein and


No one in Germany's coalition government of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) has mastered the art of verbal obfuscation as effectively as the new defense minister. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is an expert at wrapping his listeners in such elegant language that, by the time he's finished, they don't dare ask what exactly he meant. Guttenberg, like former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, knows how to use a lot of words to say very little. When he wants to, that is.

Apparently verbal obfuscation was not his intention on Nov. 6. Barely a week in office, the young defense minister said something on that Friday that left no room for interpretation. Guttenberg was addressing the controversial airstrikes called in by a German officer, Col. Georg Klein, that killed up to 142 Afghans. The minister told reporters that he had just briefed the parliamentary groups in the German Bundestag about the secret NATO investigation report on the Sept. 4 airstrikes in Kunduz, a discussion he described as "very good and important."

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Photo Gallery: Guttenberg Under Pressure

Then came the crucial sentence: "I myself have concluded that I have no doubts with regard to the assessment of the Inspector General (of the German military), namely that the military strikes and the airstrikes, given the overall threat environment, must be viewed as militarily appropriate." The NATO report had uncovered "procedural errors," Guttenberg said, but added: "even if there had been no procedural errors, the airstrike was inevitable."

That assessment remained part of the official position for all of four weeks. On Dec. 3, in a statement to the German parliament, the Bundestag, Guttenberg spoke once again with uncharacteristic directness: "Although Colonel Klein undoubtedly acted to the best of his knowledge and belief, as well as to protect his soldiers, it was, from today's objective viewpoint, and in light of all of the documents that were withheld from me at the time, militarily inappropriate."

Beginning this Thursday, a parliamentary investigative committee will attempt to answer the question as to why two so very different versions of the truth could have emerged in the space of only four weeks. The goal of the investigation is to determine who was responsible for the airstrike on Sept. 4, 2009, in which two American 500-pound bombs killed up to 142 people, including civilians, after Taliban fighters had hijacked two fuel tanker trucks near the Afghan city of Kunduz.

The Opposition Has It in for Guttenberg

But Colonel Klein, the then commander of German military operations in Kunduz, will not be the man at the center of the political uproar over the incident. Nor will it be the hapless former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, who was forced to resign from his new job as labor minister as a result of the Kunduz affair.

Instead it is Guttenberg who is expected to play a pivotal role for the investigative committee. The opposition has it in for Guttenberg, who is still seen as something of a golden boy in Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU/FDP cabinet. For the main opposition parties, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the Left Party, the investigative committee will only have been worth the effort once they have succeeded in inflicting lasting political damage on the defense minister, perhaps even forcing him to resign. That, in turn, would harm the ruling coalition itself and, with it, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, four days after the airstrike, promised the Bundestag a "full investigation of the incident."

Guttenberg will face many uncomfortable questions when he is called to testify before the committee in February. For instance, why was he willing to commit himself on Nov. 6 when he described the airstrike as "militarily appropriate?" Did the minister actually read the NATO report or did he simply rely on the judgment of his advisors? Or did he deliberately deceive the parliament and the public, under the assumption, which seemed valid at the time, that the investigation report would remain classified indefinitely? And did he only correct his initial assessment once it became clear that nothing about the affair was going to remain secret for much longer?

The commission will also want to know whether the documents Guttenberg claims were withheld from him were in fact so new and surprising as to justify Guttenberg's dramatic about-face -- and whether they actually offered any new information that the comprehensive secret NATO report did not contain.

Although individual passages from the NATO report were leaked in the past few weeks, only now has SPIEGEL obtained a full copy of the "NATO Secret" report for the first time. Just how Guttenberg, after studying this report, could have arrived at the conclusion that the attack was "militarily appropriate" will have to remain his secret.

Despite being couched in diplomatically reserved language, the "conclusions" summarized on a single page make it clear that Colonel Klein made every conceivable mistake during the night of the attack. According to the report, Klein relied on only one person for "intelligence gathering," which, even when combined with the aerial video images, was "inadequate to evaluate the various conditions and factors in such a difficult and complex target area."

The report states it was not clear "what ROE (rule of engagement) was applied during the airstrike," and that there was a "lack of understanding" by the German commander and his forward air controller (JTAC), "which resulted in actions and decisions inconsistent" with ISAF procedures and directives. Moreover, the report concludes, intelligence summaries and specific intelligence "provided by HUMINT (human intelligence) did not identify a specific threat" to the camp in Kunduz that night -- the mandatory condition for an airstrike.

The Key Document

The NATO report to which Guttenberg referred in his first statement on Nov. 6 is much more comprehensive and precise than the so-called military police report, which triggered the scandal in November. It is the key document in this affair.

The document is the product of an internal NATO investigative committee, which partly preempted the case to be debated before the German parliamentary committee starting this week. The NATO commission, headed by Canadian General Duff Sullivan, carefully questioned 34 key witnesses, including Colonel Klein.

The 73-page report, which contains about 500 pages of attachments, uses sober language to arrive at an unsettling conclusion: that the mission on that night of Sept. 4 was the result of a combination of ineptness and deliberate misinformation, without which the airstrike would never have occurred.

The document sharply criticizes the German soldiers' inexperience and the lack of professionalism in the application of NATO regulations, the deficient reconnaissance of the situation at the site of the bombing and the inadequate involvement of superiors. In the end, Colonel Klein reached a decision on his own that he should not have had the authority to make.

German General Jörg Vollmer, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Regional Commander North at the time and Klein's superior officer, told NATO investigators that he normally attached great importance to adherence to the rules of engagement. He said that he considered it "not acceptable" that he had been "notified so late" -- namely after the bombs had already been dropped.

Most of all, the interviews with the pilots and the radio communications records show how contentious the military and legal assessment of the situation was before the strike. During that night, there was an arduous tug-of-war between the German soldiers on the ground and the American pilots in the air, which lasted about 45 minutes and was characterized by suspicion on the part of the Americans. The pilots maintained the view that dropping the bombs was not the right thing to do, at least not in this manner, and they kept presenting new arguments against the airstrike.

'No Imminent Threat'

Even though there was in fact no contact between German soldiers and the enemy, Colonel Klein reported that there were "troops in contact." As a result, two American F-15 fighter jets appeared in the skies over Kunduz at 1:08 a.m. The forward air controller told the pilots to prepare to drop six 500-pound bombs.

After circling the area several times, the pilots suggested that they fly at low altitude over the sandbar where the two tankers the Taliban had hijacked were stuck. It was intended as a deterrent, or "show of force," in military jargon.

But the German forward air controller replied: "negative." He wanted the fighter jets to remain out of sight, so as not to warn the people at the site. The report states that "it could not be said from the information made available to the aircrew that they were aware of any rule of engagement that would apply to the situation." The aircrew, the report adds, "continued to discuss amongst themselves the fact that they could not see an 'imminent threat'."

This discussion led the Americans to reiterate their previous suggestion, at 1:22 a.m., to fly at low altitude over the site, so as to scatter the people on the ground and then destroy the trucks. But they were unsuccessful with their plea. At 1:31 a.m., when the Germans gave the F-15 crews the precise bombing coordinates, the F-15 crews asked whether the trucks or the people were to be targeted. According to the radio communications report, the German forward air controller replied that he wanted the people targeted.

The US pilots proposed another option, called "dynamic targeting procedures" in NATO jargon. It normally includes the use of remote-controlled drones and other reconnaissance measures. Most of all, however, it would have meant involving the ISAF headquarters in Kabul. But the Germans, who were adamantly opposed to headquarters involvement, rejected the proposal. Instead, a few minutes later the German forward air controller, code-named "Red Baron," urged the Americans to treat the trucks as a "time-sensitive target" and to arm the bombs.

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otropogo 01/20/2010
1. Murder in Kunduz, never mind Sorbibor...
So - when will Colonel Klein, his Forward Air Control Officer, and the two American pilots be charged with murder? Their active, premeditated, and entirely voluntary role in the murder of innocent civilians is indisputable. Any one of these four individuals had the power to stop at least one of the 500 lb bombs from being dropped on the victims, and without any risk to their own lives. How can the German and American justice systems rationalize their failure to prosecute the perpetrators of this massacre while continuing to prosecute John Demjanjuk, who had no power to stop any murders at Sorbibor, as an accessory to murder? facebook.com/otropogo
megacephalus 01/20/2010
2. Oberst Klein
Oberst Klein did what he should have, and should get a Ritterkreuz! He cleaned out a nest of thieves stealing military property. The relatives of the killed were unwilling to give what was left of them an Islamic funeral as they were 'Vernichtet' whilst stealing, which is against the Koran. This should be celebrated as 'the day the Bundeswehr matured'. QED
BTraven 02/01/2010
3.
Zitat von megacephalusOberst Klein did what he should have, and should get a Ritterkreuz! He cleaned out a nest of thieves stealing military property. The relatives of the killed were unwilling to give what was left of them an Islamic funeral as they were 'Vernichtet' whilst stealing, which is against the Koran. This should be celebrated as 'the day the Bundeswehr matured'. QED
He could be awarded with a cross, unfortunately, the “Ritterkreuz” has not been awarded for 60 years, which is a pity. The strange thing is that Germany introduced a cross again. It is called “Cross of Honour for Bravery”. Germany needs its crosses especially in wars. Perhaps he will get it for his decision.
Insulaner 02/01/2010
4. Ritterkreuz des eisernen Kreuzes?
Zitat von BTravenHe could be awarded with a cross, unfortunately, the “Ritterkreuz” has not been awarded for 60 years, which is a pity. The strange thing is that Germany introduced a cross again. It is called “Cross of Honour for Bravery”. Germany needs its crosses especially in wars. Perhaps he will get it for his decision.
I do not understand what of Mr. Kleins activities would justify an honour (it anyway is highly questionable if the Ritterkreuz is a desirable reward for a member of the Bundeswehr). Killing civilians is not something to be rewarded, and it for sure is not bravery. An appropriate reward for Mr. Klein would be court-martial. Regards Insulaner
BTraven 02/03/2010
5.
Zitat von InsulanerI do not understand what of Mr. Kleins activities would justify an honour (it anyway is highly questionable if the Ritterkreuz is a desirable reward for a member of the Bundeswehr). Killing civilians is not something to be rewarded, and it for sure is not bravery. An appropriate reward for Mr. Klein would be court-martial. Regards Insulaner
Sorry that I did not manage to express myself in a way of which can be concluded that it has been meant sarcastically. The “Ritterkreuz” cannot be awarded anymore but because of the war the government created a new cross, called “Cross of Honour for Bravery”. He will not get it, of course. I only wanted to explain that Germany still appreciates its crosses otherwise the award had been labelled differently, for example “Badge of Honour for Bravery”.
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