AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 38/2009

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

By SPIEGEL Staff

The recent bombing of two tanker trucks in an attack ordered by a German military colonel has led to major international criticism of the Bundeswehr. The incident has given a black eye to a country whose politicians have never been shy of telling others what's best in Afghanistan.

Colonel Georg Klein is sitting silently in his office. He doesn't want to talk, at least not about what happened. This morning his press officer gave him a rundown of the headlines in Germany and around the world. It was an onslaught of negative press.

He is now the most famous colonel in the world, the man who ordered the air strike and is responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. Klein appears worn out and tight-lipped.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Afghan Disaster

Why was he so certain that only members of the Taliban would be hit?

"I don't want to comment on that."

Why was it absolutely necessary for him to attack on that very night?

"I really cannot say anything about that right now."

Klein speaks softly; his voice is barely more than a whisper. He briefly shrugs his drooping shoulders. "You have to understand, this is an ongoing inquiry." The colonel has sunk down in his chair, as if he wanted to disappear. Even before his ill-fated decision, Klein was no top dog or snappy authority. Everything about him seems soft, despite his uniform. Now it looks like all the life has gone out of him, like the air out of a balloon.

"The colonel is absolutely devastated," says everyone at the German camp in Kunduz. The commander of the German reconstruction team in the northern city of Kunduz is experiencing the most horrendous days of his life. His decision to order air strikes against two hijacked NATO fuel trucks on the night of Sept. 4 changed everything -- him, his career, German politics, relations with the Americans and the deployment of German soldiers in Afghanistan.

War Has its own Rules

The two bombs dropped in this attack have shaken Germany's self-image. After the horrors of Hitler's Third Reich, the Germans strove to become the world's model country -- the good guys, the nice guys. From now on, nothing the Germans did was to evoke that dark chapter in history from 1933 to 1945.

The soldiers were expected to conduct military missions with roses in their rifle barrels -- in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. They searched out the safest corners, built drinking wells and waved to children -- and did everything possible to avoid firing a weapon.

But now a German officer has issued a devastating order to shoot, causing two US fighter jets to kill 50 to 100 people on the ground, including civilians. It was an unnecessary air strike, that much is certain. The village of Omar Khel, which lies in the vicinity of the air strikes, now stands for the end of the illusion that a country could keep its hands clean in a world plagued by military conflict.

It is hubris to presume that war can be waged on one's own terms. War has its own rules. It destroys innocence and creates predicaments such as the one Colonel Klein found himself in, although he had always been an impeccable soldier.

Berlin had actually wanted the Germans to believe that they were not even involved in a war. Afghanistan has not been a major issue for this government, anyway -- neither for the conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), nor for her challenger in the upcoming elections, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD). Nobody in the current right-left grand coalition wants to be linked to an unpopular military campaign that could produce casualties. Merkel has not even once attended the funeral service of a soldier. Death costs votes in an election.

This has been a remarkably evasive approach to this conflict. Klaus-Dieter Diebel, the father of one of the soldiers killed in action, said at the inauguration of a monument for the German military, the Bundeswehr, on Tuesday last week: "We, the people on the outside, and, in this particular case, the family of killed Bundeswehr soldiers, can actually endure much more truth and openness than politicians apparently give us credit for."

Merkel and Steinmeier have now belatedly -- very belatedly -- revamped their positions. In the wake of the bombings near Kunduz, the chancellor spoke to the German parliament, the Bundestag, and delivered one of her best speeches, perhaps her best ever. She managed to strike a balance between expressing condolences and energetically searching for the answers to tough questions: What is Germany still doing in Afghanistan? How long will the soldiers have to remain there?

Conditions for a Withdrawal

Late last week, Steinmeier formulated the conditions for a withdrawal, probably in a bid to avoid leaving this campaign issue to Oskar Lafontaine, chairman of Germany's far-left Left Party. Lafontaine is calling for an immediate withdrawal, irregardless of the consequences for Afghanistan.

German soldiers have been in Afghanistan since 2002, when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's "red-green" coalition of the SPD and the Green Party wanted to help US President George W. Bush fight the war on terror. But Germany has never developed a close connection to this country, which has essentially remained a remote desert land where German soldiers are primarily preoccupied with not becoming the victims of fighting. That certainly suited politicians and the general public back home. And it was perhaps this fear that drove Colonel Klein to order the attack.

Now the government has to pick up the pieces. Germany's mission of gentle pacification has failed, and a rift has opened up with many allies. After having been morally harangued by the Germans for years, fellow NATO members have not held back with their criticism of the air strike.

This incident "has become a focal point" for shedding light on all these problems, the chancellor told the Bundestag -- all because the Taliban hijacked two fuel tankers last Thursday near Kunduz. Based on interviews and a NATO inquiry report, it is possible to piece together an incomplete, yet relatively clear picture of what reportedly happened.

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© DER SPIEGEL 38/2009
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Graphic: Coalition fatalities Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Coalition fatalities

Graphic: The command structure in Afghanistan Zoom
DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: AFP; A. Niedringhaus/AP (2)

Graphic: The command structure in Afghanistan



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