It was the most disastrous bombardment that a German officer has ordered since the end of World War II. In the early hours of Sept, 4, 2009, an American F-15 jet dropped two 500-pound bombs onto a sandbank near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan at the request of the German Colonel Georg Klein. The bombs hit two tanker trucks that had been hijacked by the Taliban. Up to 142 people died in the attack.
Among them were many villagers who only wanted to siphon off fuel from the tankers. The victims' families recently received $5,000 each from the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. The money is an "ex gratia" payment -- a voluntary payment that does not recognize any legal liability on the part of the Bundeswehr or Colonel Klein.
Almost a year has passed since the disaster, during which time a debate has been raging over who was responsible for the tragedy and if Klein had erred in ordering the air strike. Then, on Thursday afternoon, the Bundeswehr sent out a 14-line statement by email. The brief text announced that the army had discontinued its disciplinary proceedings against Klein. "No misconduct" had been found, the army wrote.
The statement took pains to mention that the German federal prosecutor's office had also closed its investigation against Klein back in April, "because his actions were lawful under the relevant criteria of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts." The email said that the army had come to the same conclusion in its preliminary disciplinary proceedings.
To put it simply: The German armed forces are not even going to admonish their most controversial officer for his actions on Sept. 4, 2009.
Klein has since been sidelined and given a post as chief of staff at a tank unit in Leipzig. At his own request, he is being shielded from the media. Sources in the Bundeswehr say that Klein will never again occupy an important position. Nevertheless, he has now been officially absolved of blame. As such, he has become a symbolic example for all the other soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
Even though the army's decision may be correct under international law, it is still upsetting. NATO investigated Klein's decisions on that fateful night and produced a report on the incident that is hundreds of pages long. The military alliance clearly rebuked the German colonel for relying on a single source in his decision-making on the night of Sept. 4. That one informant claimed that the two hijacked tanker trucks posed an immediate danger to soldiers. That information was wrong. And that was where Klein went wrong.
The NATO investigators also accused the colonel of violating NATO rules by not thoroughly investigating who had been killed and how many people had died immediately after the airstrike. Instead, Klein, a practicing Christian, visited the chapel in his camp and then went to bed.
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has also spoken of mistakes made by Klein. Although Guttenberg only took office after the airstrike, he later spoke of "procedural errors" in reference to Klein's behavior. He ordered that soldiers be made more familiar with NATO procedures -- rules that were created in order to reduce the possibility of tragedies like Kunduz.
Admittedly, Klein was not adequately trained in the complex NATO procedures. Germany thought its soldiers were taking part in a reconstruction operation -- Klein and his comrades were not adequately prepared for the war that they encountered in Kunduz. During Klein's stint in Afghanistan, the fighting came closer to the German base than ever before. The officer was increasingly expected to make difficult battlefield decisions.
Klein is not a war criminal. And yet he made mistakes. As the military head of the camp in Kunduz, he was under intense pressure on the night of Sept. 4. Acting alone, he made the wrong decision, and then, whether consciously or as a result of shock, failed to adequately investigate the consequences of that decision.
It is likely that Klein, as a Christian, has punished himself enough. As he has mentioned several times in front of the parliamentary investigative committee, he still reproaches himself for the fact that his orders resulted in the deaths of women and children. The sight of him rushing into the side entrance of the parliament building in Berlin, shielded by two bodyguards and his lawyer, made it clear that Klein is a different man than he was in Afghanistan.
Misguided Esprit de Corps
Had he not ordered the air strike on that day early last September, he would probably be a general today. The bombs of Kunduz fell just three weeks before he was scheduled to return to Germany. It also isn't fair that, just one day after the bombing, a series of unhappy accidents resulted in Klein's picture being printed on the front pages of newspapers around the world -- a first for a NATO officer in Afghanistan.
Still, it also isn't fair that Klein has been spared any kind of reprimand over the incident.
Even if military lawyers insist that the decision not to punish Klein focused solely on the question as to whether or not he violated international humanitarian law, it gives the impression that Klein did nothing wrong. That is wrong, and it also sends the wrong signal to both the victims of the bombing and to German soldiers -- particularly to those officers currently serving in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the NATO rules of engagement cannot prevent deadly mistakes from being made. But officers must follow those rules. And when those rules are broken, it has to be clearly stated.
Misguided esprit de corps, on the other hand, should have no place in the German military.