Escalation Desired Germany Intensifies Mission in Afghanistan

The German-ordered air strike that led to civilian casualties in Afghanistan in early September was more than an aberration by a Bundeswehr officer. The German government and the military leadership have long supported taking a tougher approach against the Taliban.
Von SPIEGEL Staff
German Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan: In the past year, reconstruction teams have been transformed into Taliban hunters.

German Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan: In the past year, reconstruction teams have been transformed into Taliban hunters.

Foto: © Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters/ REUTERS

He said nothing about the crux of the matter. German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was standing in the German parliament, the Bundestag, giving a speech that was filled, as usual, with well-made sentences, and yet it resolved nothing.

His appearance in the Bundestag last Wednesday had been preceeded by reports that morning that Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the former inspector general of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, had accused the defense minister of "not telling the truth."

It was a declaration of war, an outrageous move for a senior military commander to be making against his defense minister. In his speech to the Bundestag, Guttenberg could have dismissed the accusation, but he didn't. Instead, he attacked the opposition while saying nothing about Schneiderhan's central charge.

Officials with the Defense Ministry are now claiming that Schneiderhan and Peter Wichert, a state secretary in the defense ministry, concealed the fact that there were other reports on the Kunduz bombing (in addition to the NATO report Guttenberg already had) when the defense minister specifically asked the two men about the existence of such reports in a meeting on Nov. 25. In an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Schneiderhan rejected this claim, saying: "With regard to the afternoon of the 25th, he is not telling the truth."

Both Schneiderhan and Wichert have since been dismissed. But Guttenberg will not be able to remain in office for long if it turns out that he lied about his conversation with the highest-ranking soldier in the Bundeswehr. For the time being, however, it remains a matter of one man's word against another's.

It is now up to the Bundestag Defense Committee, which announced last Wednesday that it would also serve as investigative committee in the Kunduz scandal, to determine who is telling the truth. The committee plans to hear testimony from Guttenberg and Chancellor Angela Merkel soon, and a civil trial could ensue. Meanwhile, Schneiderhan has stated that he had not authorized the publication of the remarks he was quoted as saying.

The committee will also have to determine what really happened in the early morning hours of Sept. 4, when German Colonel Georg Klein ordered an air strike against Taliban fighters gathered around two kidnapped tanker trucks that resulted in numerous civilian casualties.

A Whitewashing Campaign

The incident also marked the beginning of a massive campaign to cover up and whitewash what actually happened in Kunduz. Not a single politician or senior military official told the public the full truth. The subject was to be kept off the radar during Germany's fall parliamentary election campaign, so as not to ruffle the feathers of an already skeptical electorate. Now the incident has been magnified to a far greater extent than would have been the case if those involved had decided to come clean with the public in the first place.

This was precisely what the chancellor had promised voters: that nothing would be withheld or sugarcoated. Precisely the opposite occurred, resulting in a disaster for German democracy.

There are three phases to the Klein case, and new details are emerging almost daily. Each phase is explosive in its own right, and each illustrates the extent of Germany's misgivings over going to war, any war.

The main phase consists of the hours between the kidnapping of the tanker trucks and the air strike. New information suggests that there was even disagreement between the assessments of Colonel Klein and his forward air controller during this phase.

Retooling from a Reconstruction Team to a Combat Force

The preliminary phase began roughly in the fall of 2008. The events leading up to Sept. 4, 2009 show that the Bundeswehr in Kunduz, responding to political pressure, had gradually transformed itself from a reconstruction team to a combat force. For this reason, Klein's fatal order cannot be treated as an isolated aberration.

The follow-up phase began immediately after the air strike. According to the latest information, the Bundeswehr immediately began its efforts to cover up the incident.

In the NATO investigative report, which deals with the main phase, the forward air controller, whose code name was "Red Baron 20," said on the record that he and Colonel Klein had had differing assessments of the situation. According to his statement, on the night of Sept. 4 he and Klein were sitting in the German operations center in Kunduz, where Red Baron was responsible for contact with the American "Trinity" air operations center. The third officer in the room was Captain N., who was in charge of intelligence operations in Kunduz.

At 12:48 a.m., an American B-1 bomber that was circling above the tanker trucks sent a radio message consisting of the word "Bingo." This meant that it was time for the aircraft to refuel. Red Baron requested other aircraft, but the American air command center replied that it could not provide air support unless there were "troops in contact," that is, German soldiers in contact with the enemy.

It was in that moment that the subsequent course of the night would be decided. If Klein had told the Americans the truth, there would not have been air strike.

Red Baron later told the NATO investigative team that Klein had repeatedly kept him out of the loop on that evening, either disappearing into another room or whispering something to Captain N. That was what happened after the B-1 bomber had left the scene, according to Red Baron, who told the NATO investigators that Klein and Captain N. had discussed the situation privately for a few minutes and then reached a decision: Colonel Klein would have the forward air controller report that there were indeed "troops in contact" and request air support. He did so, and soon two F-15 fighter jets were dispatched to the scene.

According to the NATO investigative report, Red Baron testified, on Sept. 26, that he had not believed that the situation posed an immediate threat, nor did he believe that it was "necessary to report troops in contact." The investigators asked Red Baron why he had not raised an objection to stop Klein. The forward air controller replied: "I am a soldier, and he is my commander."

'Questionable' Information

Red Baron was apparently also unsure whether the people crowded around the tanker trucks were only Taliban. The NATO report states that the Bundeswehr's Afghan informant had reported that the only people at the scene were insurgents, but that Red Baron had considered the information "questionable."

At 1:18 a.m., the American pilots wanted to know what had happened to the drivers of the kidnapped trucks. At that point, the Afghan informant had already reported that one of the drivers had been shot and killed, but that the other one was still alive and had merely been beaten by the Taliban. Nevertheless, Red Baron's response to the Americans' question was that he had no information about the fate of the drivers. The US pilots, concluding that no innocent civilians would be killed on the ground, released their bombs.

Why did Klein lie? He has not commented on the incident yet. Until Sept. 4, he was not seen as a reckless man, but as a model officer. Could it be that he felt a need to act in accordance with political wishes? There is a history leading up to his order to bomb the tanker trucks that suggests that this could be the case.

Two hundred well-trained and well-equipped soldiers, members of the Bundeswehr's Quick Reaction Force, or QRF, left Germany for Afghanistan in June 2008. They were being sent to replace a group of Norwegian troops, and their mission was to wage offensive war against insurgents. "We are not talking about patrols and evacuations, but about offensive operations," said Birgit Homburger, the defense policy spokesperson of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) parliamentary group at the time.

"QRF is not PRT," said then Bundeswehr Inspector General Schneiderhan, putting it in a nutshell. The PRT, or Provincial Reconstruction Team, is the name used to describe the bulk of Bundeswehr troops in Kunduz. Its mission is to provide the Afghans with reconstruction assistance. This does not apply to the QRF, whose purpose is to attack members of the Taliban. Despite the QRF's obvious combat orientation, the German government and representatives of all parliamentary groups, with the exception of the Left Party, approved the mission.

In the coming months, the combat unit -- which was in fact stationed in the relatively quiet Mazar-e-Sharif -- was needed more and more frequently in the Kunduz area, where "incidents affecting security" were becoming more common.

On Oct. 20, 2008, two German soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing.

On Oct. 21, two state secretaries, August Hanning of the Interior Ministry and Peter Wichert of the Defense Ministry, traveled to Afghanistan, where they remained until Oct. 25.

'It Cannot Go On Like This'

When the two Germans met with Afghan National Security Advisor Zalmay Rassul, they wanted to know "why known backers of the attacks on German police officers and soldiers were not being called to account." Their words carried an unspoken threat: We will take matters into our own hands, if necessary.

Back in Berlin, Wichert scheduled an unusual meeting. He asked representatives of the Chancellery, the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, to attend a confidential meeting at the Defense Ministry. The attendees were contacted by telephone. There was no written invitation. The meeting revolved around two concrete questions: Who was behind the attacks in Kunduz? What could the German government do against the backers of those attacks?

"It cannot go on like this. I'm very concerned," said Hanning, who, together with Wichert, had convened the meeting and was reporting from Afghanistan. "The situation in and around Kunduz is far more dramatic than the public believes," he told the group. Hanning, intent on hunting down the Taliban backers, favored a tougher approach. From his perspective, for German troops the conflict boiled down to either hunting or being hunted.

Armin Hasenpusch, the BND's vice president for military affairs, summarized the situation as his organization saw it. On a colorful chart prepared by the BND to depict the region surrounding Kunduz, an oval area shaded in green identified the sphere of influence of an important commander in northern Afghanistan, whose name is on the NATO troops' wanted lists: Mullah Shamsuddin. He's an experienced Pashtun commander who controlled the surrounding villages and had ordered girls' schools there closed a few months earlier. The mullah is a member of the so-called Northern Afghanistan Shura Council, a shadow government appointed by the Taliban leadership in Pakistan.

From Bridge Builders to Combat Soldiers

The group of senior German government officials would convene several times after that initial meeting, always at the Defense Ministry, and it introduced an unspoken paradigm shift: Bit by bit, the bridge builders of the PRT were to become combat soldiers.

The German position shifted a little further in early May. The BND had located a local Taliban leader named Abdul Razeq, and its agents knew where he was and what he was planning. Razeq, who apparently headed one of the local terrorist cells, was believed to be responsible for various attacks on the Germans. The Bundeswehr knew that it could catch him, but it had to be interested in catching him. Until then, it had had no interest in Razeq.

Then things changed. This time the Bundeswehr sent out its KSK special forces unit. Sixty kilometers (37 miles) southeast of Faizabad, in northeastern Afghanistan, the elite unit stormed a farmhouse and then chased Razeq as he fled into the mountains, where he was caught. The Germans then flew Razeq to Kabul on board a Transall military transport aircraft and turned him over to a special prosecutor.

By now it was clear that the Germans had changed their position. Now they were hunting the Taliban.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, the defense ministry and senior military officials were hard at work to ensure that German soldiers would be capable of engaging in combat.

The Bundeswehr Gets Teeth

On April 8, 2009, the following sentence was deleted from the NATO operations plan: "The use of deadly force is prohibited, unless an attack is underway or imminent."

The Germans had originally included these "national clarifying remarks" in the wording of the NATO plan to ensure that Bundeswehr soldiers would only be permitted to shoot in self-defense. In statements relating to the NATO rules of engagement numbered 421 to 424 and 429A and 429B, the Germans clarified that they did not wish to characterize their attacks as "attacks," but as the "use of appropriate force." But now none of this applied anymore.

At this time, the defense policy experts at the Bundestag were addressing concerns about military equipment. Rainer Arnold, the defense policy spokesman of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) parliamentary group, said that it was irresponsible to "send soldiers on their dangerous missions without giving them the protection that would be possible as a result of superior Western technology." Arnold wanted the Bundeswehr to have combat helicopters in Afghanistan.

His counterpart with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Bernd Siebert, campaigned for the Panzerhaubitze 2000  ("Armored howitzer 2000"), a serious weapon, the use of which quickly came to be associated with dead civilians.

The soldiers, for their part, were not just concerned about the lack of equipment, but also the question of what exactly they were permitted to do on this mission. The German government has been consistently reluctant to refer to the conflict as a war, even though the men and women stationed in northern Afghanistan had long felt that they were involved in one, except that they were not being truly permitted to fight.

He had felt like bait in a trap, a soldier wrote to his comrades in June. Despite being in a dangerous situation, the soldier wrote, regulations required that he wait until the Taliban attacked before returning fire. Others reported having to attract attention by slamming doors or flashing their headlights before they could begin fighting with insurgents waiting to ambush them. This raises the question of whether the legal qualms of the mission leadership turned the soldiers into targets.

Despite the deleted clauses in the NATO operations plans, the Germans still face limited options. Under the rules of engagement, which every Bundeswehr soldier stationed abroad carries with him in the form of a so-called pocket card, the German troops are only permitted to defend themselves against attack, ward off attacks or provide emergency assistance.

Sounding the Attack

At the behest of members of parliament, the legal department at the Defense Ministry amended the soldiers' pocket cards. The cards now read: "Attacks can be prevented, for example, by taking action against individuals who are planning, preparing or supporting attacks, or who exhibit other forms of hostile behavior." The Bundeswehr was sounding the attack, as the Germans began a major military offensive in an attempt to regain control over the region surrounding Kunduz.

"The time had come to commence the escalation," then Inspector General Schneiderhan told the Berlin press on July 22.

The defense experts in the Bundestag were enthusiastic about the new military approach. "The ministry has finally recognized that the German interpretation of the rules of engagement are not consistent with the realities in Afghanistan," said FDP politician Rainer Stinner.

And SPD politician Rainer Arnold said: "It's good that the pocket card is now being amended to reflect the realities of the mission, thereby preventing uncertainty among the soldiers from arising in the first place." German soldiers, he added, couldn't simply run away from terrorists once they had recognized them.

The situation in Kunduz came to a head in August, when the BND warned that the Taliban was preparing to overrun the German base there. According to the BND, a suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with explosives would break through the first barrier into the base, making way for a second truck, also filled with explosives, to blow up the main gate. This would allow 50 to 100 Taliban fighters to enter the camp and attack the PRT directly.

There had also been indications in the preceding weeks that several suicide attacks against Germans were planned. Mullah Shamsuddin and his men were presumed to be behind all the plans.

At this point, there was also a so-called Task Force 47 unit in the camp. With a few dozen KSK soldiers and Bundeswehr scouts, the unit's mission was to project the Kunduz camp. The soldiers monitored the surrounding area, searched for rocket positions, evaluated drone images, recruited local informants and, together with interpreters, listened in on the radio communications of possible enemies.

The KSK soldiers call it "tracking," when they detect and follow insurgents. At the beginning of September, the KSK unit was apparently tracking four local Taliban leaders, Mullah Abdul Rahman, Maulawi Naim, Mullah Siah and Mullah Nasruddin. Each of them commanded about 15 fighters and controlled small areas around Kunduz.

In the night between Sept. 3 and Sept. 4, these local Taliban leaders appeared at the hijacked tanker trucks when they were stuck on a sandbar.

The trucks had been kidnapped in Shamsuddin's territory on the evening of Sept. 3 by one of his local commanders, Mullah Abdul Rahman. The Afghan intelligence service had had its eye on Rahman for some time and was listening in on his mobile phone conversations. The BND also had him under surveillance.

Shamsuddin and Abdul Rahman were the enemy, the people who had launched repeated attacks on Colonel Klein's soldiers. It is quite possible that the incident on the Kunduz River boiled down to a power struggle between Mullah Abdul Rahman and Colonel Klein. Klein himself used the word "destroy" to convey the intention of his order.

He had good reason to believe that his superiors and the German government would approve of his robust actions, particularly after having looked on as they had paved the way for a stronger German military response in the preceding months. However, Klein bears sole responsibility for probably having lied to convince the Americans to drop the bombs.

'At Least 100 Were Apparently Killed'

The third phase was also characterized by lies. It began directly after the air strike.

Only a few hours later, still on Sept. 4, a confidential, three-page report, of which SPIEGEL has a copy, was written in Kunduz. The author is a sergeant who manages Afghan informants. His report proves how early the Bundeswehr knew about the devastating effects of the strike within the civilian population. According to the Bundeswehr, the informant was an Afghan "with direct access to information on the activities of the insurgents in the Chahar Dara district." The informant's information had been "relatively credible" in the past.

According to the informant, the casualties included "Taliban as well as civilians." The Taliban had apparently intended to distribute the fuel from the tankers, the source reported. "This was the reason for the large number of civilians in the area." At least 100 people were apparently killed.

The sergeant felt that the informant's report was credible, because it confirmed the mission "at its core." According to the sergeant, it seemed "likely that civilians were also killed in the air strike," and it was even "conceivable" that, at the time of the bombing, "a large number of civilians was present" to collect free gasoline from the tankers.

The sergeant, concerned about the fallout, wrote in his report: "Should the information prove to be true, particularly the information about the large number of civilian casualties, negative consequences are quite possible."

The report remained classified. Publicly, the Bundeswehr, ranging all the way up to then Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, initially claimed that there were no civilian casualties, and that all those killed were Taliban. The investigative committee will now have to determine who knew about the document when, and who decided, against his better judgment, to claim the opposite was true.

The Federal Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany is now looking into whether it should launch an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Klein. Until now, the investigators have assumed that purpose of the air strike was to defend against impending attack. In that sort of a situation, international criminal law permits the killing of enemies, even if this could lead to civilian casualties.

There is no clear mathematical formula in international criminal law defining a military strike as a violation of international law once a certain number of casualties has been reached. Until now, the Karlsruhe investigators have been eager to give Klein the benefit of the doubt. From their offices in a provincial southern German city, they have been loath to decide how a commander in Afghanistan should view the world.

But the picture becomes more complicated if it turns out that Klein knew, at the time of the bombing, that there were still civilians and an innocent truck driver in the target area. The federal judges will now have to determine whether Klein was prepared to accept the possibility of collateral damage during the attack.

The clearer it becomes that there was no acute threat and that the air strike was ordered out of a purely destructive desire, the narrower the investigators' latitude, and the more thoroughly federal prosecutors have to examine the case. And the more serious the outcome of the Karlsruhe investigation is, the greater the collateral damage for the Bundeswehr will be. Soldiers pay very close attention to the consequences a commander must anticipate when he makes a decision with fatal consequences.

And so the soldiers remain stuck somewhere between the Taliban and the law. The Taliban attack the Germans where they can, and the prosecutors pay close attention to whether the Germans strike back on a regular basis.

This is what happens when a democracy wages war. It cannot be any different. But when a military mission is accompanied by lies and cover-ups, democracy squanders its moral advantage.

Reported by ULRIKE DEMMER, MATTHIAS GEBAUER, JOHN GOETZ, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, HOLGER STARK

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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