The air strike the German army ordered on two hijacked fuel tankers stuck in a river bed in the Kunduz region of northern Afghanistan in the early hours of last Friday appears to have claimed considerable civilian casualties and has led to criticism from Germany's NATO allies in Afghanistan. It has also put the German government, and especially Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, under pressure, and has placed the unpopular Afghan mission at the forefront of the German election campaign ahead of the Sept. 27 vote.
There's an element of Schadenfreude in the criticism of Germany from its allies, write German media commentators. Germany, whose troops are based mainly in the less dangerous north of Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency has been less powerful and deadly than in the south, has consistently lectured its NATO allies about how to conduct the campaign and criticized them whenever military operations resulted in civilian casualties. So it's not surprising that they are now on the receiving end of criticism following an attack that the Washington Post reports claimed 125 lives, including at least two dozen people who were not Taliban insurgents.
The criticism of the German handling of the attack seems justified, the commentators add. But internal divisions within NATO at this point would only benefit the Taliban, as would setting a date for a troop withdrawal, they add.
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The allies are fundamentally embittered about Germany's tendency to offer advice and little in the way of action even though it has dispatched the third-biggest contingent of troops. Now this nation that always knew everything better and criticized the military strategy of the troop providers in the south is responsible for an air strike with what may turn out to be the highest number of civilian casualties."
The left-wing Frankfurter Rundschau writes:
"Jung is trying to choke off the debate about the air strike by saying: We did everything right -- we prevented an attack on the German army that was timed to coincide with the election campaign. It's questionable how great the danger was if the fuel tankers are indeed stuck. Jung's strategy of avoidance is explosive. He's provoking the allies by trying to whitewash the German army's role. The US has realized that it's more advisable to risk the lives of one's own soldiers in close combat rather than killing even more civilians through air strikes. This battle can only be won with the Afghan population, not against them."
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The air strike clearly violated NATO's mission guidelines. Air strikes may only be ordered if there's imminent danger. And that is hard to see when two fuel tankers are stuck in the sand. The German commanders apparently relied on grainy reconnaissance images and the statement of a single informant that an air strike would only hit Taliban fighters intent on suicide attacks. Such an overreaction cannot be justified by referring to expectations that the Taliban will launch attacks on German forces ahead of the German election, and by saying that German forces are probably nervous as a result."
"The disturbing aspect is how Franz Josef Jung is dealing with this disaster. It's bad enough that the defense minister plays down the dimension of the Afghan mission every day. But someone who denies there were civilian casualties even if there's overwhelming evidence to the contrary is no longer suitable for the job."
Conservative Die Welt writes:
"There was no imminent danger for Allied troops or the Afghan population. The tankers were stuck in a river bed and weren't rolling towards German positions as mobile fire bombs. But deriving serious errors and accusations from that, as some European allies are now doing, doesn't do justice to the tense situation facing the German army in northern Afghanistan. It will be the target of perfidious Taliban provocations at least until the election, and it doesn't appear adequately equipped for that. It lacks its own air transport capacities and its calls for Allied air support will becoming more regular and less precise. This mustn't lead to accusations within the alliance. That would be the beginning of the end."
Mass circulation Bild writes:
"The days when a divided Germany could stay out of international conflicts are over. Now we can't turn our backs on the fight against fundamentalist terror. But successive governments have too long nurtured the illusion that the German army is a group of boy scouts with weapons. That is over since the air strike on the fuel tankers."
"The Americans -- who still have the massive German criticism of them ringing in their ears -- can barely conceal their schadenfreude: look, the good Germans too are responsible for killing civilians. Even though it hasn't yet been established whether and why non-combatants were killed."
"If allies wage war against each other, they only end up doing their enemy's job. It's clear that leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban would be the greatest mistake -- and would make a mockery of our soldiers. A fixed date for withdrawal would send a fatal message too: 'Just wait a while, then you can carry on your bloody work without being troubled.'"
"Afghanistan must first be able to take care of itself -- then we can withdraw our troops. The sooner, the better."
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