Testimony to Parliamentary Inquiry German Officer Defends Controversial Afghanistan Air Strike

German officer Georg Klein, who ordered an air strike in Afghanistan that killed 142 people, testified before a parliamentary committee in Berlin on Wednesday. He described the attack as "appropriate" but said he regretted the civilian deaths.
Von Matthias Gebauer und John Goetz
German Bundeswehr Colonel Georg Klein: "I grieve for these people."

German Bundeswehr Colonel Georg Klein: "I grieve for these people."

Foto: Anja Niedringhaus/ AP

German Colonel Georg Klein -- the man at the center of a German-ordered air strike in Afghanistan  that resulted in civilian deaths and sparked criticism around the world -- appeared before an investigative committee of the German parliament on Wednesday. At the hearing, he strongly defended the decision to order the highly controversial air strike on two tanker trucks that had been seized by Taliban militants near Kunduz in Afghanistan on Sept. 4, 2009.

At the beginning of his one-and-a-half-hour-long testimony to a closed-door session of the inquiry, Klein described the air strike as "appropriate," according to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE. With the word "appropriate," the officer used exactly the same term that Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had initially used to describe the attack -- and which he later withdrew.

However, Klein also expressed his regret for the civilian victims of the attack. "I grieve for these people," he said. Up to 142 people were killed in the air strike and several of them, perhaps dozens, were civilians.

The colonel is the first witness to appear before the Bundestag investigative committee, which has been set up to shed light on the decision to order the air strike and the many mistakes that were made before and after the operation. Klein surprised observers with his decision to appear before the panel, which consists of 31 members of the German parliament. He could equally have refused to make a statement, on the basis of the fact that federal prosecutors are currently considering whether to open a criminal investigation against him.

On Wednesday morning, Klein, shielded by police, was escorted into a bug-proof room in the parliament building where the closed-door session was being held. In spite of its assurances that the inquiry would be transparent, the committee was unanimous in its view that the colonel should not have to face the press's critical questions and cameras.

Breaching NATO Rules

Klein has come in for massive criticism  since the attack because he violated several NATO regulations by giving his order for the deadly air strike. A secret NATO report on the incident was highly critical of the officer's actions. Klein had apparently not followed a number of rules intended to prevent civilian casualties, had intentionally made false statements and had allegedly hindered attempts to investigate the incident.

On Wednesday, Klein justified his actions by referring to numerous details relating to the threat posed by the militants. He emphasized that the use of an air strike had been the right decision given the particular situation. With the help of his lawyer, Klein had prepared a long statement which contained many details about the security situation in the run-up to the attack.

On Wednesday morning, before appearing in front of the committee, Klein issued a statement through his attorney which said that "the decision in favor of the air strike was, on the basis of the available information and resources, legally justified and therefore legal." According to the statement, Klein as commanding officer had been forced to make a serious military decision in an armed conflict on behalf of his soldiers, the Afghan security forces and civilians.

What Role Did the KSK Play?

Klein defended himself against suspicions that Germany's secret elite force, the KSK, may have pressured him to give the order during the Kunduz operation. Klein led the operation from the command post of Task Force 47, half of which is comprised of KSK fighters. "I want to expressly emphasize that we were not dealing with a Task Force 47 operation, but rather one of the PRT," Klein said in the hearing, in a reference to the civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Team.

In the session Thursday, Klein also sought to set the record straight regarding an earlier version of events provided by the Bundeswehr, which stated that weapons had been deployed out of concerns that the two tanker trunks hijacked by the Taliban presented a danger. Klein said: "The target of the attack was only the tanker trucks and the insurgents in the immediate vicinity." With his statement, though, he confirmed that the two bombs were also intended to kill Taliban who had been spotted near the tankers.

During his testimony, the commander repudiated suspicions that it had been known that civilians might also be killed if the bombing took place. He said he remained firmly convinced the entire time that the bombs would not strike any innocent people. He said a Bundeswehr informant had confirmed this several times. "The source had the vehicles in direct sight," Klein reported.

Klein also played down the allegation that he had refused suggestions by the pilots that they first fly over the tankers at a low altitude. The flyovers, referred to as a "show of force" in NATO jargon, had been used too many times before the September incident in efforts to drive away crowds, Klein argued, and were no longer effective. Another Bundeswehr officer had also made a similar statement to NATO.

Klein also noted in his statement that he hadn't made every decision on his own. He said it was particularly difficult for him to understand the details of the discussion between his joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) and the pilots because so much jargon had been used. "For that reason it was not possible for me to monitor the radio communications between the JTAC and the pilot. That is also not my job," Klein said.

With additional reporting by DPA.
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