By SPIEGEL Staff
At 8:00 p.m. the J2 officer at the German field camp in Kunduz received a call from Afghan security forces, who reported the hijacking of the two fuel tankers. J2 is the staff division responsible for military intelligence. The officer informed Colonel Klein, who requested air reconnaissance from the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul.
Not far from the scene of the incident, an American B-1B long-range bomber was flying overhead at the time. Klein told the crew to locate the fuel tankers. At 9:14 p.m. the pilots spotted the trucks on their screens.
At 10:00 p.m. an Afghan informant called the Bundeswehr at its field camp in Kunduz. He reported that the stolen vehicles were stuck on a sandbank in the Kunduz River. The man is a so-called C-3 source. This means that his reports have "proven to be reliable on a number of occasions." This classification is the minimum requirement in order to be able to work with the information.
By now Colonel Klein had moved to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). This windowless office resembles an air traffic control tower, and on the wall hangs a map of Afghanistan. But Klein had his eyes glued to the screen of the American remotely operated video-enhanced receiver (ROVER) device. This looks like a conventional laptop and shows live video feeds from the aircraft.
The images were gray and not particularly clear. It was possible to make out the trucks on the river, and people, some of whom were apparently carrying weapons. The informant had told the J2 officer that only armed insurgents were on the ground, including four Taliban leaders. There were no civilians near the fuel tankers, he said.
At 1:08 a.m. two American F-15 fighter jets arrived on the scene and took over the surveillance because the B-1B needed refueling.
It is only possible to speculate on what was going through Colonel Klein's mind at that moment. But there is no doubt that a conscientious man such as himself must be familiar with the ISAF rules for deploying fighter jets. These include the general Rules of Engagement (ROE) for the Afghanistan mission and the Standing Operation Procedures (SOP), in this case SOP 311 for close air support.
There is a binding decision matrix to avoid "collateral damage" as well as "special instructions."
These are complemented by the revised Tactical Directive issued by ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal in August. "We have to think and act differently," the general wrote. "The conflict will be won by persuading the people, not by destroying the enemy."
According to the general, if there is a risk of civilian casualties, ISAF commanders should call off air support at the last minute and allow the enemy to escape. Commanders require at least two mutually independent sources before they can request air strikes.
The target categories are described in these rules. Air support can be requested when there are "troops in contact," the operation would hit "time sensitive targets," or specific persons or objects would be eliminated. These are known as deliberate targets.
The requesting commander can only order air strikes if there is an imminent threat for troops in contact with the enemy. It is baffling that Colonel Klein and his forward air controller reported "troops in contact" although no ISAF ground troops were in the vicinity of the fuel tankers stuck on the river.
As the two F-15 fighter jets circled over Kunduz, Klein apparently changed the rationale for the operation. Now he referred to "time sensitive targets" and said there was an "imminent threat." However, the trucks were obviously going nowhere, and had been stuck for four hours.
An Imminent Threat to German Soldiers?
Klein knew that in a past incident the insurgents had detonated a tanker truck in Kandahar, killing dozens of civilians. He had also received visits from a number of leading politicians, from Merkel and Steinmeier as well as Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung (CDU) and his predecessor Peter Struck (SPD). Klein knows that they fear nothing more than an attack on German troops shortly before the upcoming parliamentary elections.
In August an informant reported that the Taliban were talking about overrunning the German camp. He said that there were plans to crash through the first barrier using a truck loaded with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber. The informant said that a second truck, also loaded with explosives, would follow. In addition, reports had come in over the past few weeks that a number of suicide attacks were being planned against the Germans.
All of this was going through Colonel Klein's head. This was a great deal of information, and it was complex. He needed to seek advice, but he consulted neither his legal adviser, as is customary for important decisions, nor his superiors, as would normally be in keeping with his otherwise cautious manner. His only advisers on that night were a captain and a staff sergeant.
Klein spoke once again with the informant on location, his C-3 source. He asked: "Are there any civilians nearby? No children? No buildings?" The answer in each case was "no." Then Klein issued the order: "permission to engage." A quarter of an hour later, the fighter jets reported "weapons impact" after dropping two GBU-38 bombs, each weighing approximately 250 kilograms (500 pounds). These are highly accurate, thanks to a GPS guidance system. On the ground, the fuel tankers were transformed into an inferno.
'If They Kill Civilians, They Should Go Home'
Some of the victims of the air strike are still in the hospital at Kunduz. Mohammed Nur, a young farmer from Aliabad, is lying on a sturdy steel bed, his hands and feet wrapped in heavy gauze bandages. He is suffering from second-degree burns. Nur says he was sitting with relatives eating the evening meal to break fasting during the month of Ramadan. They were having shurwa -- chicken soup -- and it was 7:00 p.m. when three armed Taliban suddenly appeared in the doorway and demanded that they drive tractors down to the river. They said there were tankers stuck in the sand there, and they had to be pulled out. Mohammed obeyed. There were 30 to 40 armed Taliban standing on the riverbank, he says, and they were surrounded by a huge crowd, all holding large containers which they were filling with fuel.
The Taliban had called up their friends and relatives and told them that they could come get free fuel here. Nur and his relatives worked for hours on the trucks, trying to haul them out of the mud. People continued to stream to the site to stock up on fuel. There may have been hundreds of them during the course of the night, he says. "Of course we knew that the fuel was stolen, but we were forced to go there," says the slim patient, lying under sheets with a flowery print. He tries to smile -- he doesn't yet know that his two brothers died there.
Mohammadi, a frail man with a beard and sunken cheeks, blames the German soldiers: "If they can give us no security, if they kill civilians instead, then they should go home." He says that his father died in the flames of the exploding trucks. The neighbors, who are Taliban supporters, had pulled his father out of his house at night, he says, and forced him to go down to the river bed. When he arrived, he was put to work by the Taliban filling canisters with fuel and placing them on a tractor. He says that his father was a simple farmer, a civilian -- not a Taliban.
It is difficult to say whether those killed were civilians, Taliban or Taliban supporters, yet this remains a key question, at least from the Germans' perspective. Does a farmer only become an adversary when he is carrying a weapon? Or is it enough for him to carry fuel for the Taliban? And does it matter what he is thinking at the time?
Lieutenant General Mirza Mohammed Yarmand has been researching the incident on behalf of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and has spoken with hundreds of people over the past five days. At first glance, Yarmand's conclusions sound unequivocal: "Most of them are Taliban supporters," based on information that he says he has received from the NDS, the Afghan intelligence agency. But then things start to sound a lot less straightforward: He says that it isn't easy to differentiate between who is a hardliner, who is a relative, who is a friend and who only happened to find out about the trucks. There are no clear-cut boundaries.
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