Friendly Fire Casualties in Afghanistan German Military Criticized for Deadly Mistakes

In April German troops killed six Afghan soldiers in a friendly fire incident. The ISAF investigation has found that there were significant failures on the part of the Bundeswehr on that fateful night.

Afghan and German soldiers working together in Afghanistan.

Afghan and German soldiers working together in Afghanistan.

By Ulrike Demmer, and John Goetz

When the commander of the German camp in Kunduz drove to the Afghan soldiers' mud huts at the other end of the airport in mid-May, he took along six dead sheep and about $12,000 (€9,680) -- blood money to make amends for an irreparable offence. On Good Friday, his soldiers had accidentally killed six soldiers in the Afghan National Army (ANA) in a friendly fire incident.

Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, was informed that the families of the victims were "compensated in accordance with customary local standards," and that there was "no evidence of malfeasance on the part of the German soldiers involved in the incident."

That, as it turned out, appeared to be a premature statement. It is possible that six Afghans had to die because the German military, the Bundeswehr, failed to pass on information correctly, and German soldiers shot prematurely and failed to provide assistance afterwards. Those are the conclusions of investigations by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan and the Bundeswehr.

Two Warning Shots

Investigators know that an infantry company left the camp in Kunduz on April 2, at 7:21 p.m., on its way to relieve a German unit whose soldiers had been embroiled in heavy fighting with insurgents for hours about five kilometers west of the German camp, near the hamlet of Isa Khel. Two Marder armored personnel carriers were at the head of the convoy. About half an hour later, the Germans encountered two Afghan Army vehicles, a Humvee off-road vehicle and, just behind it, a Ford Ranger pickup.

According to the Bundeswehr's account, two warnings were issued. First, the Germans fired one or two shots with red flares. When the vehicles did not stop, one of the Marders shot at the ground about 50 meters (164 feet) in front of the Humvee. The Humvee apparently came to a stop, but was then passed by the Ford Ranger. That, according to the German military account, was when the soldiers opened fire.

Only after they had passed the vehicles did the Germans apparently notice that they had fired on ANA forces. They claim that seeing that there were no survivors they continued driving in order to fulfill their mission.

'They Should Have Recognized Us'

This account has triggered resentment among members of the ANA in Kunduz. Just days after the incident, Belgian journalists Pascale Bourgaux and Garry Wantiez managed to speak to a survivor at the ANA camp. First Sergeant Orogol is squatting on the ground in the soldiers' squalid camp made of containers and mud huts. He was driving the Humvee, which was clearly marked as an Afghan army vehicle, when the deadly shots were fired. "The Germans have such good technology," he says. "They should have recognized us."

Orogol reports that although the Germans did in fact fire red flares at first, they began shooting with live ammunition immediately afterwards. "We didn't have any time to identify ourselves." He says that the only reason he survived is that he hid in a ditch next to the road.

In the ISAF investigation report, the Afghan side also stated that the Germans started shooting with live ammunition immediately after firing the flares. According to the Afghans, after the driver of the Ford Ranger was shot and killed the vehicle went out of control and rolled past the Humvee. The passengers in the Humvee attempted to flee or take cover, and one of them was shot dead. The passengers in the Ford Ranger all died in the hail of bullets coming from the Marder. Investigators found fist-sized holes in the front of the vehicle.

The German soldiers were under great pressure that night. Three of their comrades had been killed in battle a few hours earlier. Besides, Afghan units are not always easily recognized as such. The Taliban sometimes use stolen ANA vehicles as camouflage. Nevertheless, the ISAF report concludes that the deaths of the six soldiers could have been prevented.

This is because the Afghan soldiers reportedly informed their Belgian training officer that the Humvee and the Ford Ranger had left for Kunduz to pick up provisions. The Belgian, according to the ISAF report, forwarded the information to the German operations center, but it apparently was not passed on to the combat troops.

Failed to Live up to New Standards

The investigators are also critical of the Germans for not having secured the site until local security forces arrived, as required under the rules of engagement. The Bundeswehr justifies its actions by claiming that the soldiers could not have done anything for the dead Afghans and had to come to the aid of their fellow German soldiers in battle.

At any rate, the Bundeswehr has, once again, failed to live up to its new standards of transparency and openness. The press release that was published on the Internet six hours after the incident was false: "En route to relieving another unit, German forces encountered two civilian vehicles, which did not stop, even after the Germans had conducted all security and identification procedures."

Gen. Murad Ali Murad, who commands the 209th Corps of the Afghan army, responded angrily when asked about the incident. "Any child can recognize Afghan army vehicles, and the Germans in particular, with their sophisticated technology, should have seen this. Anyone who claims that the Germans didn't make a mistake is a liar."

The German federal prosecutor's office is now examining whether there is reasonable suspicion that the Bundeswehr's actions constituted a criminal offence.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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