Ausgabe 38/2009

The End of Innocence in Afghanistan 'The German Air Strike Has Changed Everything'


Part 4: Condescending Tone

Whatever Colonel Klein's motives were and however large his share of the blame may be, it is already clear that Germany's Defense Ministry failed completely in this case -- especially Defense Minister Jung and his communications experts.

The public relations nightmare began on the Friday of the air strike. "According to our knowledge at present, no civilian was injured," Defense Ministry spokesperson Captain Christian Dienst told journalists in Berlin.

The news agencies, however, were already reporting civilian casualties. Dienst, who is notorious for his condescending tone, seemed annoyed in his reaction to follow-up questions by the assembled journalists. He had no time for speculation made by reporters who were sitting, as he put it, "in their warm armchairs in Berlin."

The attack was ordered because the military was in possession of data "which allowed the conclusion that no uninvolved civilians would be harmed in the attack," Dienst added. German soldiers were "completely in the know" about "what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do." That was all Dienst had to say on the matter.

No Official Version

In the early afternoon, the relevant Defense Ministry press officers left to start their weekend. An official who was normally only authorized to give information on administrative issues was assigned as a contact person for journalists for the next few days. Berlin also muzzled the press officers at Bundeswehr Operations Command in Potsdam.

The defense minister did not consider it necessary to bring his top people -- military personnel, senior ministry officials, press officers -- together at one table to get an overview of all the facts. Neither was there a common official version of events. Soon everyone in the ministry was babbling away just as they pleased.

On Friday afternoon, senior Defense Ministry official Thomas Kossendey, a member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, justified the air strike by saying that a delay in acting would have presented "the greatest possible danger" as the tankers could have been used as a rolling bomb to attack the German base in Kunduz. Meanwhile, lower-ranking officials spread the word around that Colonel Klein had sent out reconnaissance drones and Fennek reconnaissance vehicles during the night to gather information about the situation in the river bed. None of this was true.

While evidence of civilian casualties was piling up, Jung stubbornly announced on the weekend that he "could not confirm such information." He "unequivocally" stood by Colonel Klein's decision, he said. Jung did not inform members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, about the situation. Immediately after the bombing, he had fobbed them off with a 17-line statement that was equivalent to a press release. The tone of the statement can be seen in phrases such as "a successful operation against insurgents near Kunduz."

The Sunday edition of the Washington Post had extensive coverage of the incident contradicting Jung's version of events. General Stanley McChrystal had traveled to Kunduz with an American journalist in tow. While German reporters and even Klein's own spokesperson had to leave the conference room before the talk with McChrystal, the American journalist was allowed to remain in the room. Klein was told that the American was only there to gather background information for a book project.

On Sept. 6, all the statements that the German had made were published in the Washington Post. The article made it clear that Klein had issued the order to attack and that he had relied solely on videos from American jets and the statements of a single Afghan informant.

'Jung Does Not Have His Own House in Order'

On Monday, Sept. 7, Jung's spokesperson Thomas Raabe created even further confusion. He told journalists that there was a "further intelligence source that we are not discussing publicly." Just a day later, at a special meeting of the Bundestag's defense committee, Raabe's supposed "third source" was revealed to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

The confusion reached a peak on Thursday, Sept. 10. Just as NATO spokesperson James Appathurai in Brussels was -- under pressure from the Defense Ministry in Berlin -- denying that there was an interim report on the bombing, senior Defense Ministry official Peter Wichert sent a memorandum on the report to the Bundestag's defense committee. Then on Friday, Jung himself gave the heads of the various parties' parliamentary groups a briefing classified as "secret."

According to that briefing, the NATO paper had already arrived in Berlin on the Monday. However, it is unclear whether Jung had already known about the contents of the document at the time of the meeting of the Bundestag defense committee on Tuesday morning -- or whether he had deliberately said nothing to the members of parliament.

"If the minister didn't know anything," says SPD defense expert Rainer Arnold, it would show once again that "Jung does not have his own house in order."

Direct Hit

The soldiers in Kunduz are naturally happy about any support from back home.

"It was a direct hit," says Jörg K. The 37-year-old sergeant is sitting with two fellow soldiers in an inner courtyard. They are part of the unit that investigated the site of the incident 12 hours after the explosion. Jörg K. cannot believe that innocent civilians were among those who lost their lives there.

The best evidence for Jörg K. that his commander did everything right was the joy with which he was greeted on the river. About 100 Afghan soldiers and policemen raised their weapons into the air and gave the Germans the thumbs-up sign. "Some of them even slipped us money," says the sergeant, pulling a finger-thick wad of 100-afghani bills out of his pocket.

Five days after the bombing, Bundeswehr soldiers left their base in considerable numbers. About 500 soldiers headed to the northeast of the country to free fellow soldiers from a trap.

The Taliban launched a new series of attacks and an armored personnel carrier was hit. That evening, a German non-commissioned officer sitting in the camp said: "Today I thought it was absolutely right to bomb those tanker trucks. We just can't hit enough of these assholes."


© DER SPIEGEL 38/2009
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