The World from Berlin 'Afghanistan Is Not a Computer Simulation'

A top German general says that a confidential NATO report has exonerated a Bundeswehr officer who called in a controversial air strike in Afghanistan in September that is believed to have resulted in a number of civilian deaths. German commentators are critical of the report and fear the incident may never be resolved.

Afghan security forces stand guard near a burnt fuel tanker that had been blasted by a NATO jet.
AP

Afghan security forces stand guard near a burnt fuel tanker that had been blasted by a NATO jet.


A top German general says a NATO report has exonerated a German officer who called in a controversial air strike in Afghanistan in September.

"I have no reason to doubt that the German soldiers made the right military move in view of the difficult situation," he said, referring to the Sept. 4 attack on two feul trucks that had been hijacked by the Taliban. Germany has insisted that it was necessary to call in the air strike to protect its troops from a possible suicide attack. However, critics pointed out that the trucks were stuck in a sandbank and therefore did not pose any immediate threat.

Schneiderhan also said it was no longer possible to confirm the exact number of people killed in the air strike by an American fighter jet and that it was also impossible to verify if any "uninvolved persons" had been killed. "According to the report, between 17 and 142 persons died or were injured," he said, adding that local leaders quoted in the report had stated that the number was between 30 and 40.

Growing Civilian Casualties

In June, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had ordered commanders of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to ensure targets were clear of civilians before calling in air strikes. The order was an attempt to reduce the growing number of Afghan civilian casualties that has been damaging the mission's credibility.

Schneiderhan defended Colonel Georg Klein, who had given the order, saying his military evaluation had been correct. "I can very well understand that the night of Sept. 4 presented itself in such a way for Colonel Klein, that it seemed like there were no uninvolved persons at the scene," Schneiderhan said after reading the classifed report, which was sent to Berlin on Wednesday. The general also admonished critics to view the air strike in the context of recent events. The Taliban, he noted, had recently used trucks and fuel trucks to carry out six deadly attacks, and, since July, there had been indications that the insurgents were planning to attack German targets.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reports that sources who have read the report say that it actually shows that Klein broke the ISAF rules of engagement. However, the sources say that the text doesn't include any direct evaluation but instead is "very descriptive."

The report will now be sent to the public prosecutor's office in Dresden, which will decide on whether to open criminal proceedings against Klein.

German newspapers are divided on whether to see the report as a vindication of Klein, but most say that Schneiderhan's statement still leaves many questions unanswered.

The center-right Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The German colonel who is being accused of taking the wrong action in Afghanistan … could have acted differently on that night. In hindsight it would have been safer for him to look away and do nothing. But what if the Taliban had used the trucks as mobile bombs a few days later and attacked the German base or an Afghan police station? Then he would have been accused of looking away and doing nothing. The allies would have been able to say once again that the German army was avoiding the fight. Could he not have sent a unit on a reconnaissance mission and used infantry to attack the target? If there had been casualties then he would have been reprimanded for not using a few jet fighters to take care of the job."

"In the face of everything that he could have done wrong, it is difficult to criticize him for his decision -- even if, unfortunately, it was not only Taliban who were the victims of the attack. In this case, too, the borders between insurgents and civilians, participants and non-participants are still so unclear that even the investigative report shies away from specification. However, the officer didn't just have to deal with the information at his disposal on that night, but also with his limited options for reacting."

"General Inspector Schneiderhan has come to the conclusion after reading the NATO report, that the air strike was appropriate in the light of the situation at the time. It is clear to him, at least, that the German armed forces in Afghanistan are not in a computer simulation but rather a murky war -- a war that the enemy is attempting to make as dirty as possible. If Germany wants to be absolutely sure that no civilians die in the war, then it should demand the end of the international mission. There has never been a war without accidents, poor decisions and victims on both sides."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Schneiderhan has to be even-handed about the results of the investigation. However, he also has to be protective of his colonel and with him, of all the soldiers deployed on the mission. That is quite some balancing act. The report reveals, as far as is known, that the ISAF rules of engagement were not adhered to. And that explains Schneiderhan's statement that procedures and regulations need to be improved. Improvements are only required when something goes wrong -- no matter who is to blame."

"Schneiderhan was at lengths to describe the extremely difficult situation that Klein found himself in. ... Schneiderhan attempted to make it clear that, in his opinion, Klein had subjectively made the right decision that night. Whether he was objectively correct, is now being investigated by the prosecutors on the basis of the ISAF report."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The report leaves many questions unanswered. The number of dead and injured alone is estimated at between 17 and 142. If it was not possible to establish this important fact, then how can NATO and the Bundeswehr estimate how many of the dead were civilians -- and whether the attack was justified or not? It is almost impossible to determine if a body is that of a member of the Taliban, a sympathizer or villagers who were either invited or forced to comply. The fact-finding process is made virtually impossible by the fact that villagers had buried their dead hours before the Bundeswehr finally arrived at the scene."

"Just days after the air strike it was clear that important details would never be established. German politicians and military leaders had repeatedly tried to make the opposite impression by pointing to the ongoing investigation. The main purpose was to win time. That was needed to keep the attack and the issue of the increasingly unpopular and unsuccessful mission in Afghanistan out of the German election campaign. The Taliban had intended the opposite. They wanted to increase pressure on the German government through the hijacking of the tanker trucks."

"The report, which has not been made public and probably never will, has not provided the public with more transparency or clarity. It was exactly this that was required to make it possible to adequately judge the Bundeswehr's actions."

"The political and military leadership failed after the attack and with their poor crisis communication they gave the fatal impression that something was being hushed up. They cannot now credibly correct that impression."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"There was no lack of detailed investigations after the Bundeswehr ordered an air strike on two hijacked tanker trucks in Afghanistan on Sept. 4. The governor of the district supplied a list with the names of 134 dead, and according to him there were children among the victims. The Afghan government sent its own investigating committee and confirmed that there were at least 99 deaths, of which 30 were civilians. Now Berlin has the official NATO report which estimates 'between 17 and 142' dead and injured and also that, according to NATO findings, 30 to 40 may have been civilians."

"General Inspector Wolfgang Schneiderhan has the nerve to interpret the NATO findings as a vindication for the Bundeswehr, because the report does not confirm that 'uninvolved persons died.' The German soldiers had acted appropriately from an operative point of view. So everything was done correctly then. What about a decoration then for the colonel who ordered the air strike? Nevertheless, the public prosecutor in Saxony is still investigating the officer. But let's not fool ourselves. Nothing will come of it. The war, that is not allowed to be called a war, has to go on."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Colonel Georg Klein, who ordered an air strike on two hijacked tanker trucks at the beginning of September, acted correctly in military terms. General Inspector Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Klein's most senior officer said that this is what the ISAF classified report states, which landed on Karl Theoder zu Guttenberg's desk on his first full day on the job as defense minister."

"If the military leadership makes an unequivocal statement on a NATO issue, then it can be assumed that the result has turned out to be clear."

-- Siobhán Dowling

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