Ausgabe 39/2009

Investigation in Afghanistan New Allegations against German Officer who Ordered Kunduz Air Strike

The allegations are mounting against German Colonel Georg Klein, who ordered a recent air strike in Afghanistan in which civilians are believed to have died. Klein apparently gave incorrect information to the US pilots who carried out the attack and neglected to warn people on the ground, in violation of NATO procedures.


Colonel Georg Klein: Were NATO procedures followed properly during the recent German-ordered air strike in Kunduz?

Colonel Georg Klein: Were NATO procedures followed properly during the recent German-ordered air strike in Kunduz?

The investigators have now arrived on the scene. They are staying at Colonel Georg Klein's base in Afghanistan, where they are questioning personnel, inspecting the premises and equipment and listening to recordings of radio communications. Their goal is to determine whether Klein can be held accountable for what happened.

Colonel Georg Klein is still in Kunduz, even though his six-month tour of duty there was scheduled to end this week. Under normal circumstances, he would have been able to go home by now, but Klein is forced to remain in Kunduz; if he were to leave Afghanistan, it would look like an admission of guilt.

He meets daily with the chief investigator, Canadian NATO Major-General C.S. Sullivan. By now Klein is probably asking himself how it could have happened, how he could have issued that fateful command on Sept. 4. Sources in Kunduz say his nerves are becoming increasingly frayed.

Violated Regulations

His command -- "Weapons release!" -- consisted of only two words. And yet it appears to have led to the killing of 100 people, including civilians, in addition to reigniting the debate over the German military mission in Afghanistan.

"At 1:51 a.m., I decided to give the order," Klein writes in a report on the incident submitted to the German Defense Ministry in Berlin. After that, two American F-15 fighter jets dropped two bombs, hitting two tanker trucks a group of Taliban militants had hijacked more than five hours earlier.

It now seems clear that the air strike was a mistake. But there are growing indications that Klein may have violated regulations in the process. Investigators are looking into whether Klein properly informed the pilots over the gravity of the situation and whether he may have skipped a level in the escalation ladder.

The air strike has changed the political situation in Germany. The left-wing Left Party -- the only major German political party that advocates an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan -- took advantage of the incident to call for a major antiwar protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. A short time later, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier unveiled a plan outlining how Germany could initiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, classified International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) documents suggest that the Bundeswehr will actually be drawn more deeply into the conflict, facing the prospect of more, not less, combat action.

Al-Qaida Threat

A new al-Qaida video released on Friday included a threatening message in German directed at German voters and Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Afghanistan policy.

In the video, Bekkay Harrach, a German-Moroccan who intelligence services believe belongs to the middle level of the al-Qaida leadership, threatens attacks on German soil if the outcome of the Sept. 27 election signals a continuation of the country's Afghanistan mission. "The German government is not taking the threat from al-Qaida seriously enough," Harrach says in the video, which government officials believe is authentic. The terrorist also warns Muslims living in Germany to avoid any places that are not "essential to daily life" during the two weeks following the election. Since Friday, federal police officers armed with submachine guns have been stationed at German airports and train stations in response to the al-Qaida threat. The conflict in Afghanistan is suddenly making its presence felt in Germany.

The future of Germany's Afghanistan mission will also hinge on the question of how Colonel Klein arrived at his decision to issue the "weapons release" command, and why he apparently neglected to warn the crowd of people gathered around the tankers on the ground.

The crews manning the F-15 fighters had asked the German colonel and his forward air controller in Kunduz whether they should first fly their jets at low altitude over the tankers. Such a "show of force" -- as the method is known in military jargon -- would have given the Taliban fighters and civilians the opportunity to flee. Klein apparently turned down the request, thereby "omitting" one of the escalation levels which, according to NATO procedures, need to precede an air strike, officials in Berlin said last week.

According to information SPIEGEL has obtained, the pilots asked whether the situation posed an "imminent threat." Klein, through his forward air controller, responded with a terse "confirmed." The air commander, a master sergeant, was code-named "Red Baron," a reference to Manfred von Richthofen, a German pilot credited with having shot down 80 airplanes in World War I.

Serious Charges

The American pilots also asked Klein's air commander twice whether German forces had had contact with the enemy -- "troops in contact," in the jargon. The response, once again, was: "Confirmed." In truth, however, it appears that German forces from the Kunduz base had not been deployed to carry out reconnaissance of the situation in the riverbed where the tanker trucks were. The fact that the tankers had been stuck in the riverbed for hours meant they probably posed no acute threat to the base.

In the absence of enemy contact or an acute threat, Klein lacked the authority to order the air strike by himself. If a commander's own forces are not under acute threat, he is required to consult with ISAF headquarters in Kabul before ordering an air strike. And if there is a risk of civilian casualties, then an air strike can only be authorized by NATO's Joint Force Command in the Dutch town of Brunssum.

The charges are serious. They suggest that Klein and the "Red Baron" may have not told the pilot the truth and that the air strike was ordered on the basis of false information.

Klein's superior has defended the colonel's actions until now. The details of the incident remain unclear, Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Germany's highest-ranking officer, told defense experts in the German parliament on Wednesday following his return from a brief visit to Kunduz.

An excuse for Klein's failure to warn people on the ground has been circulating among Klein's colleagues at the Defense Ministry in Berlin. They claim that a loud, low-altitude warning maneuver would not have been necessary for the "participants" who had congregated around the tanker trucks during the night; the jets, they say, had already been patrolling the skies over the site for some time, thereby giving sufficient audible forewarning to the people in the riverbed. However, the people on the ground had probably believed, like many people in Afghanistan, that the Germans preferred to exercise caution when it came to the use of force.


© DER SPIEGEL 39/2009
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