Ausgabe 38/2009

The End of Innocence in Afghanistan 'The German Air Strike Has Changed Everything'


Part 3: 'Bombs Sow the Seeds of Hate'

After the air strikes, leading members of the provincial government gathered in an office in downtown Kunduz. The men sat in a circle, wearing large turbans and colorful silk cloaks laid over their shoulders. Everyone listened as Mohamadullah Wardak, a large man with gold spectacles and a gold tooth, lectured them about the "false sense of humanity" of the Westerners, who now regretted the deaths of the terrorists' helpers: "A few more air strikes like that, and the Taliban would soon be finished." Everyone nodded.

But towards the end of the meeting, Maulawi Ebadullah Ahadi raised his hand. He is a slender man who speaks softly and comes from Chahar Dara, where the Taliban are strong, and where he has not been able to return for the past year. "Brothers, each of those killed has a hundred relatives who will then fight against the government. Bombs sow the seeds of hate."

'Of Course We Had Orders to Attack NATO Convoys'

Mullah Shamsuddin already has a deep-seeded hatred of the West. He is a high-ranking Taliban and one of the most infamous commanders in the region surrounding Kunduz. When he received a call on his mobile phone from Mullah Abdul Rahman last Thursday evening at around 9:00 p.m., he was amazed, and then delighted. Without further ado, Rahman told his boss Shamsuddin that his 20 men had taken control of two NATO fuel trucks in Aliabad, over 20 kilometers (13 miles) south of Kunduz. Now Rahman was asking for instructions.

Shamsuddin was surprised. "Of course we all had orders to attack NATO transport convoys, if we had the opportunity," he told SPIEGEL last week over the phone, "but I never would have believed that we would have managed to take a number of vehicles under our control."

What Rahman told him seemed almost too good to be true. During the night the insurgents had set up a checkpoint on the main road, as usual, when the convoy approached them. Since the vehicles were only guarded by a handful of security personnel, the Taliban had the upper hand. "The commander said that there was a brief exchange of fire and that a number of vehicles had broken through our checkpoint," says Shamsuddin. Two of the fuel tankers couldn't accelerate fast enough, and the Taliban immediately killed one of the drivers and took the other one prisoner. In contrast to all previous reports, Rahman said that the driver's throat had not been cut, but that he had been executed "with a shot to the head."

According to Shamsuddin, he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do with the two tankers at the time. "We simply planned to drive them to Chahar Dara and unload the fuel there," he says. "We can always use more supplies."

Shamsuddin rejects the theory circulated by the Bundeswehr and the German Defense Ministry that the Taliban intended to convert the trucks into bombs on wheels. "Every weapon against the Germans and ISAF is fine with us," he boasts, "but fuel tankers are far too impractical in terrain like this." Less than 20 minutes after the first conversation, Rahman was on the phone again. Their seized trucks were stuck in a sandbank on the Kunduz River, he said, and they couldn't budge.

A New and Regrettable Page in German History

Shamsuddin went to bed feeling disappointed. At 1:50 a.m. he was jolted awake by the sound of the explosion. The attack did little damage to the Taliban, he now says. Only Rahman and a few of his men were standing around the tankers at the time of the explosion. "In Jihad," he says, "you have to accept" the death of fighting men.

His adversary in Kunduz holds the opposite view. Colonel Klein was not willing to accept the death of his people, and he has suddenly written a new and regrettable page in German history. He of all people, say those who know Klein. The colonel from Germany's Rhineland region is a quiet man, who seems oddly sensitive, a tea drinker, someone who wants to do everything right.

One of Klein's best friends talked with him over the phone after the attack and says: "Georg made this decision and he stands by it 100 percent, with all the consequences." One thing is certain, he adds, Klein is not going to try to put the blame on anyone else. "But if it really turns out that something wasn't done the way it should have been done, then he is in for an extremely rough ride. Then he is going to be dealing with this for a long time to come."

Klein hails from Bendorf on the Rhine, from a family with seven children. His father was in the river police. In 1980, Klein graduated from a local high school. The year before, he had signed up for the German army as an officer candidate with a commitment to serve 12 years.

'A Level-Headed Officer'

"He's a human being though and through," says one master sergeant who served under Klein in the 154th Armored Battalion in the Rhineland-Palatinate town of Westerburg. Even then, Klein did not allow his orders to be followed rigidly, but was mindful of their purpose and whether the end justified the means. One time, he stopped a 36-hour exercise because of bad weather. Long-serving sergeants grumbled that in the past they would just have got on with it.

By all accounts, his image does not seem to fit with that of man who issued such a reckless order in Afghanistan.

One of his former commanding officers called him a very level-headed officer. Klein frequents museums, likes going to the opera and ballet, listens to classical music and reads the German classics.

Colonel Klein's tragedy is that, of all people, an officer who always tended to be cautious gave what is perhaps one of most disastrous orders of the Afghanistan mission.

When a German soldier at a checkpoint shot and killed an Afghan boy in August -- and the father accused the Germans of firing without warning -- Klein went to the parent to apologize. This time, though, there are too many dead for him to give his personal condolences.

The German legal system is also looking into Colonel Klein's order. A special unit of the public prosecutor's office in Dresden began examining the case last week. It aims to determine whether Klein could have committed a punishable offense, and whether the current probe should become a formal investigation. The investigators will do this from Dresden; they currently have no plans to travel to Kunduz.


© DER SPIEGEL 38/2009
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