The World From Berlin 'Truth Is Often The First Casualty Of War'

On Thursday, Germany's defense minister is set to testify before parliament about his knowledge of a deadly attack in Afghanistan that resulted in civilian deaths. Despite a decision by prosecutors to drop an investigation into the military official who called for the bombing, German commentators say the inquiry into whether politicians lied is essential.


The German Federal Prosecutor's Office announced earlier this week that it was dropping an investigation into Georg Klein, the German general who ordered an American-led air strike against suspected Taliban in Kunduz who had hijacked two tanker trucks in September. The bombing resulted in the deaths of up to 142 people, including many civilians.

Prosecutors in Karlsruhe said that neither German nor international law provided grounds for continuing the investigation into Klein. The federal prosecutor also suspended the investigation into a sergeant involved in the same incident. Prosecutors concluded that at the time Klein and the sergeant ordered the attack, they were not in a position to know that civilians had gathered around the targeted tankers. They concluded that Klein had neither violated German law nor international laws on combat.

Wolfgang Schmelzer, the deputy chief of the German Armed Forces Association, said that the decision "gave all soldiers more security." German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg also greeted the decision, saying that the "news from the Federal Prosecutor's Office is very good, and not just for the soldiers directly involved."

A Political Case

But even though the investigation into Klein and his officers has been dropped, a parliamentary committee of inquiry is still conducting its own probe into the Kunduz affair, which triggered a round of national soul searching among Germans, where the majority of people oppose the deployment of the Bundeswehr, the country's armed forces, in Afghanistan. Rather than dealing with military legalities, though, the parliamentary inquiry is reviewing the German government's response to events in Kunduz and whether politicians sought to cover up possible mistakes made by German officers. The Bundestag inquiry committee wants to know which members of the German government knew what and when.

The Kunduz affair has already claimed several high-ranking victims. Former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, who became labor minister in Merkel's new cabinet last September, was forced to resign over the scandal. Two senior officials -- one in the Bundeswehr and another in the Defense Ministry -- were also dismissed because of their response to the bombing of civilians.

Defense Minister Guttenberg is scheduled to answer the committee's questions on Thursday. Initially, the defense minister stated that the Kunduz attack had been an "appropriate" response. Later, though, he distanced himself from earlier statements, claiming that certain relevant reports had been withheld from him. However, the officials Guttenberg claims withheld the information deny this.

On Wednesday, German commentators remain relatively ambivalent about the fact that proceedings against Klein have been dropped. They are universal in their belief that the parliamentary inquiry should continue and that it is unacceptable for politicians to bend the truth, lie or withhold information on the Kunduz bombings.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There is nothing wrong with a defense minister who stands behind his troops -- that is his right and his duty. But he should not be allowed to stand in the way of the truth. He is not allowed to lie. Nonetheless, there is a strong suspicion that former Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung and his successor Guttenberg have not been entirely truthful in their statements about the catastrophe in Kunduz."

"The (public prosecutor's) investigation dealt exclusively with the question of whether Col. Klein violated international law by odering the bombing. It was an investigation into the truth about what actually happened in Kunduz, not about whether it has been truthfully represented by the militray or politicians. But the fact that prosecutors have determined that Col. Klein cannot be charged with war crimes does not mean that the defense minister is off the hook over accusations he has spread disinformation and lied."

"There won't be any legal proceedings relating to the Kunduz bombing, and that makes the parliamentary investigation all the more important. Because so far there has been no indication of the 'airtight clarification' promised by Chancellor Merkel and her fellow conservatives. This disinterest also threatens the legitimacy of Germany's mission in Afghanistan."

Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The top prosecutors in the country have declared that, as far as the judiciary goes, this case is closed. In the view of Merkel's conservatives, the problem is solved. And it does seem that, since the most recent attacks in Afghanistan, politicians have more important work to do."

"However, the question of whether members of the government played tricks when dealing with the bombing and its political consequences, is still the key question facing this committee of inquiry. To clear this up it will be necessary to invite the defense minister, his chief administrator and other witnesses for testimony."

"What still remains totally unclear is what sort of role the chancellor has played in this affair. What has been officially confirmed is that Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, sent the Chancellery a first assessment of the situation the morning after the bombing in which it reported that there had been numerous civilian deaths. Merkel hasn't made any public statements so far about when and if she obtained the memo from the intelligence service. But this information is important because it is required in order to determine whether the chancellor really wants to find out the truth about the affair or whether she is one of the politicians who, in the run-up to a federal election just weeks later, preferred to keep the matter under wraps. If Merkel's conservatives are really serious about the committee's work, it will be inevitable that the chancellor must testify before it."

"The only acceptable reason to bring the committee of inquiry to an early end would be if, instead of dealing with the more important aspects of the mission in Afghanistan, it became too caught up in irrelevancies and political tomfoolery. But clarifying whether members of the government consciously gave false information to parliament and the public or didn't inform them to the best of their knowledge is neither of those things. German troops have been sent to Afghanistan under the mandate of the federal parliament and it is their job to use every means available to them to determine whether the political leadership is conducting itself properly in relationship to the troops. ... Since the most recent German deaths in Afghanistan, Merkel and Guttenberg have found it acceptable to describe the situation in Afghanistan as war. But it is unacceptable for truth to now become the first victim of war, as is often the case."

Conservative newspaper Die Welt writes:

"There is hardly any other phrase that has been as misunderstood as the timeless sentence written by General von Clausewitz: 'War is the means and never can the means be conceived without the end.' German politicians discussing the current mission in Afghanistan would do well to heed the old Prussian's words."

"So how should we proceed in Afghanistan? To bunker down there for the long haul is not possible. Even less likely is a hasty retreat, which would leave behind a black hole. The alliance in Afghanistan would be destroyed and Germany would no longer have any influence on American strategy and Germany would then have to go its own way, without security."

"The principle of 'come together, leave together' still applies. And anyone sending soldiers into danger must align the military means with the political goals. Leadership means having to explain, justify and sometimes even to limit. That is the chancellor's challenge: Her touchstones are national interest, alliances and global security. The sole goal must be to prohibit Islamic extremism in that wild nation and to calm the situation in Pakistan. How that can be accomplished and what measures will be sufficient to do it are the inescapable questions."

-- Cathrin Schaer


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