It is rare that one can pinpoint the exact moment when a country's geo-political identity, built up over years of tentative forays onto the global stage, comes unravelled.
But for Germany, that moment is easily identifiable. At precisely 1:50 a.m. local time on Sept. 4, 2009, two 500 pound bombs, dropped seconds earlier from a pair of NATO F-15 fighter jets, came crashing down on a low sandbank in the middle of the Kunduz River in Afghanistan.
Ordered by a German commander on the ground, the bombs slammed into a large crowd of locals, many of them there to collect gasoline from two tanker trucks which had become stuck in the soft sand after having been hijacked by Taliban insurgents just hours before. Up to 142 people were killed and several of them, perhaps dozens, were civilians.
Germans, of course, have slowly become aware that their soldiers -- after eight years of participation in NATO's Afghanistan mission -- are exposed to the kind of danger they haven't experienced since World War II. Nevertheless, the country has steadfastly refused to address the true, violent nature of the deployment -- and politicians in Berlin have preferred to downplay the mission. The country, in short, has never acknowledged that it is at war.
As a result, the fireballs of Kunduz, the largest German-ordered attack in the country's postwar history, stand as a repudiation of all that modern-day Germany had come to believe about its role in military missions abroad.
"The German government tried from the very beginning to present the Afghanistan mission differently from how it really was," Henning Rieke, a security expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Berlin wanted to focus on civilian reconstruction free from contamination from the brutal altercations in southern Afghanistan. It was something of a protective lie to keep those Germans quiet who don't support the mission."
The reflex runs deep. Indeed, in the hours and days immediately following the attack, Berlin seemed keen to continue with business as usual. When the bombs fell, Merkel and her cabinet were out on the campaign trail ahead of general elections, which took place on Sept. 27. Then-Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung maintained for days that no civilians had been killed --- despite almost immediate evidence to the contrary -- and continued his bicycle tour through his constituency. While on a campaign swing through her own voter district on the Baltic Sea coast, Merkel sought to satisfy her own thirst for information on Kunduz by surfing Google for news on her smart phone.
It was only on Sept. 6 that Merkel made her first public comments on the Kunduz bombing, fully 50 hours after the incident. Two days later, Merkel went before German parliament, the Bundestag, to deliver a governmental policy statement on Afghanistan.
'Failure of Political Leadership'
After almost four years in the Chancellery, it was the first time that Merkel had ever held a governmental policy address before parliament which focused exclusively on Germany's engagement in Afghanistan.
"What has happened is a failure of political leadership," Winfried Nachtwei, a Green Party security expert who retired from the Bundestag at the end of 2009 after 15 years as a parliamentarian, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "When we are talking about war and peace, it is no longer up to the respective cabinet minister. Such a thing is fundamentally up to the chancellor."
Nachtwei was a member of the parliamentary Defense Committee when the bombs fell in Kunduz. He says that the committee received its first briefing on the incident four days later -- adding that it quickly became clear that the information provided in the briefing was only a fraction of what the government knew by then. "Merkel should have put the information on the table, open to the public," he said.
Germany's road to Kunduz started in 1999. While the Bundeswehr had taken part in a handful of small humanitarian missions prior to that date, it was the participation of the German air force in NATO's attack on Serbia in defense of Kosovo that marked Germany's most significant break from decades of pacifism. Both that mission and the decision to join NATO in Afghanistan in January 2002 were preceded by a great deal of hand-wringing in the country, as Germans got used to the idea of sending soldiers into harm's way.
Caught Off Guard
But the slow transformation of Afghanistan from -- for Germans stationed in the north, at least -- a relatively safe reconstruction mission to one involving almost daily contact with belligerent Taliban forces has caught the country off guard.
Kunduz is particularly difficult for Germany not only because of the high number of civilian casualties, but also because it was the result of a series of errors and apparently deliberate disregard of NATO rules of engagement. In calling for the air strike to destroy the tankers, Col. Klein reported enemy contact -- required for authorization of such an attack -- despite there having been none. In forming his assessment of the situation, he relied on the information of a single witness.
The fact that Klein's air controller (known as "joint terminal attack controller" in NATO parlance) apparently misled the American pilots flying the two F-15 fighters is particularly damning. He told one of the pilots, who goes by the handle Dude 15, that they "had 'intel that all individuals down there' were insurgents." Yet a secret NATO report on the incident, which SPIEGEL has obtained, indicates that the German army had received information that at least one of the tanker drivers was still alive.
When Is a War a War?
Dude 15 told NATO investigators that, prior to the bombing, he had "an uneasy feeling about everything." He said "he could tell the ground commander was really pushing to go kinetic" -- anxious to drop bombs, in other words.
In the weeks after the bombing, many of the headlines dealt with the political aftermath in Berlin. Jung, who had moved over to head the Labor Ministry in Merkel's new government, was forced to resign from the cabinet in late November as a result of his initial refusal to admit civilian casualties despite being in possession of evidence which showed that innocents had died.
Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg himself got into hot water for calling the Kunduz attack "militarily justified." He fired Germany's top soldier, Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and a top Defense Ministry official for allegedly having withheld information from him -- even though he had read the secret NATO report, which clearly outlined errors made by Klein when he ordered the attack, before going public with his assessment of the bombing. Guttenberg has since reversed himself, calling the attack "militarily unjustified" in early December.
The coming months will see Berlin take a much closer look at the events leading up to the attack and the response by leading German politicians in its aftermath. A parliamentary investigative committee, which in January began assembling a list of possible witnesses to be called to testify, intends to take a close look at the political response to the bombing. Both Chancellor Merkel and Defense Minister Guttenberg will likely provide testimony.
In particular, the committee will seek to find out exactly when Merkel learned of civilian casualties and why she didn't take a greater role in investigating the incident, despite having said on Sept. 8 that "a comprehensive analysis of the attack and its aftermath is extremely important to me, to the defense minister and to the entire government." The investigative committee will also look closely at the Defense Ministry to determine exactly how Jung could have remained uninformed about civilian casualties for so long.
In addition, some parliamentarians are concerned that the Bundeswehr was secretly ordered to wage a more offensive war and that the Bundestag was not informed. There are some who suspect that Col. Klein may have thought he had political backing for a more aggressive stance. It is a question the investigative committee will also seek to resolve.
But beyond the finger-pointing in Berlin, the Kunduz bombing could, in the long term, mark the moment when an unwieldy understanding between German politicians and the German public fell apart. Even as 69 percent of Germans would like to see the Bundeswehr withdraw from Afghanistan -- according to a survey conducted for German public television in December -- there has been little pressure from below to stop the mission. Afghanistan has rarely been a central issue in election campaigns and the kinds of massive demonstrations the country saw prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan have been absent. Nationwide debates, following German battlefield casualties have tended to be short-lived.
And German politicians, for their part, have assuaged a largely pacifist public with assurances that the Afghanistan mission was more about building schools and training police than about doing battle with the Taliban. Indeed, it was something of a sensation in Germany when Guttenberg, shortly after taking over the Defense Ministry in October, referred to " war-like conditions" in Afghanistan. Prior to that, the German government had been loathe to use the word "war" in discussing NATO's engagement in the Hindu Kush. Guttenberg's predecessor Jung preferred the term "reconstruction mission" or, when pressed, "combat mission."
"I call it fear of the electorate," said security expert Rieke. "There is no preparation in Germany to see war as an element of foreign policy. People tend to see war as the failure of politics."
With World War II still looming in Germany's not-so-distant past, it isn't difficult to see why. Indeed, Washington's clamouring for an ever greater number of German troops in Afghanistan can still seem odd to Germans. It was only 20 years ago, after all, that the world faced the prospect of post-Cold War German reunification with a significant degree of trepidation.
Germany too, however, was apprehensive of its own rebirth in 1990. Indeed, the shock of Kunduz is all the more intense as it reminds Germans of the disregard for human life its military once had. Mostly, though, the incident has laid bare a need for the country to take a hard look at its role in overseas missions and how best to identify and defend its national interests.
"There has been no honesty about what the mission in Afghanistan means for collective security," said Nachtwei. "The portrayal of the mission in public has been overwhelmingly euphemistic." He continued: "The chancellor has approached the issue with kid gloves. Yet it is the greatest German foreign policy challenge since 1949."