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

The recent bombing of two tanker trucks in an attack ordered by a German military colonel has led to major international criticism of the Bundeswehr. The incident has given a black eye to a country whose politicians have never been shy of telling others what's best in Afghanistan.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

Colonel Georg Klein is sitting silently in his office. He doesn't want to talk, at least not about what happened. This morning his press officer gave him a rundown of the headlines in Germany and around the world. It was an onslaught of negative press.

He is now the most famous colonel in the world, the man who ordered the air strike and is responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. Klein appears worn out and tight-lipped.

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Photo Gallery: The Afghan Disaster

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Why was he so certain that only members of the Taliban would be hit?

"I don't want to comment on that."

Why was it absolutely necessary for him to attack on that very night?

"I really cannot say anything about that right now."

Klein speaks softly; his voice is barely more than a whisper. He briefly shrugs his drooping shoulders. "You have to understand, this is an ongoing inquiry." The colonel has sunk down in his chair, as if he wanted to disappear. Even before his ill-fated decision, Klein was no top dog or snappy authority. Everything about him seems soft, despite his uniform. Now it looks like all the life has gone out of him, like the air out of a balloon.

"The colonel is absolutely devastated," says everyone at the German camp in Kunduz. The commander of the German reconstruction team in the northern city of Kunduz is experiencing the most horrendous days of his life. His decision to order air strikes against two hijacked NATO fuel trucks on the night of Sept. 4 changed everything -- him, his career, German politics, relations with the Americans and the deployment of German soldiers in Afghanistan.

War Has its own Rules

The two bombs dropped in this attack have shaken Germany's self-image. After the horrors of Hitler's Third Reich, the Germans strove to become the world's model country -- the good guys, the nice guys. From now on, nothing the Germans did was to evoke that dark chapter in history from 1933 to 1945.

The soldiers were expected to conduct military missions with roses in their rifle barrels -- in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. They searched out the safest corners, built drinking wells and waved to children -- and did everything possible to avoid firing a weapon.

But now a German officer has issued a devastating order to shoot, causing two US fighter jets to kill 50 to 100 people on the ground, including civilians. It was an unnecessary air strike, that much is certain. The village of Omar Khel, which lies in the vicinity of the air strikes, now stands for the end of the illusion that a country could keep its hands clean in a world plagued by military conflict.

It is hubris to presume that war can be waged on one's own terms. War has its own rules. It destroys innocence and creates predicaments such as the one Colonel Klein found himself in, although he had always been an impeccable soldier.

Berlin had actually wanted the Germans to believe that they were not even involved in a war. Afghanistan has not been a major issue for this government, anyway -- neither for the conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), nor for her challenger in the upcoming elections, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD). Nobody in the current right-left grand coalition wants to be linked to an unpopular military campaign that could produce casualties. Merkel has not even once attended the funeral service of a soldier. Death costs votes in an election.

This has been a remarkably evasive approach to this conflict. Klaus-Dieter Diebel, the father of one of the soldiers killed in action, said at the inauguration of a monument for the German military, the Bundeswehr, on Tuesday last week: "We, the people on the outside, and, in this particular case, the family of killed Bundeswehr soldiers, can actually endure much more truth and openness than politicians apparently give us credit for."

Merkel and Steinmeier have now belatedly -- very belatedly -- revamped their positions. In the wake of the bombings near Kunduz, the chancellor spoke to the German parliament, the Bundestag, and delivered one of her best speeches, perhaps her best ever. She managed to strike a balance between expressing condolences and energetically searching for the answers to tough questions: What is Germany still doing in Afghanistan? How long will the soldiers have to remain there?

Conditions for a Withdrawal

Late last week, Steinmeier formulated the conditions for a withdrawal, probably in a bid to avoid leaving this campaign issue to Oskar Lafontaine, chairman of Germany's far-left Left Party. Lafontaine is calling for an immediate withdrawal, irregardless of the consequences for Afghanistan.

German soldiers have been in Afghanistan since 2002, when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's "red-green" coalition of the SPD and the Green Party wanted to help US President George W. Bush fight the war on terror. But Germany has never developed a close connection to this country, which has essentially remained a remote desert land where German soldiers are primarily preoccupied with not becoming the victims of fighting. That certainly suited politicians and the general public back home. And it was perhaps this fear that drove Colonel Klein to order the attack.

Now the government has to pick up the pieces. Germany's mission of gentle pacification has failed, and a rift has opened up with many allies. After having been morally harangued by the Germans for years, fellow NATO members have not held back with their criticism of the air strike.

This incident "has become a focal point" for shedding light on all these problems, the chancellor told the Bundestag -- all because the Taliban hijacked two fuel tankers last Thursday near Kunduz. Based on interviews and a NATO inquiry report, it is possible to piece together an incomplete, yet relatively clear picture of what reportedly happened.

At 8:00 p.m. the J2 officer at the German field camp in Kunduz received a call from Afghan security forces, who reported the hijacking of the two fuel tankers. J2 is the staff division responsible for military intelligence. The officer informed Colonel Klein, who requested air reconnaissance from the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul.

Not far from the scene of the incident, an American B-1B long-range bomber was flying overhead at the time. Klein told the crew to locate the fuel tankers. At 9:14 p.m. the pilots spotted the trucks on their screens.

At 10:00 p.m. an Afghan informant called the Bundeswehr at its field camp in Kunduz. He reported that the stolen vehicles were stuck on a sandbank in the Kunduz River. The man is a so-called C-3 source. This means that his reports have "proven to be reliable on a number of occasions." This classification is the minimum requirement in order to be able to work with the information.

Unclear Images

By now Colonel Klein had moved to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). This windowless office resembles an air traffic control tower, and on the wall hangs a map of Afghanistan. But Klein had his eyes glued to the screen of the American remotely operated video-enhanced receiver (ROVER) device. This looks like a conventional laptop and shows live video feeds from the aircraft.

The images were gray and not particularly clear. It was possible to make out the trucks on the river, and people, some of whom were apparently carrying weapons. The informant had told the J2 officer that only armed insurgents were on the ground, including four Taliban leaders. There were no civilians near the fuel tankers, he said.

At 1:08 a.m. two American F-15 fighter jets arrived on the scene and took over the surveillance because the B-1B needed refueling.

It is only possible to speculate on what was going through Colonel Klein's mind at that moment. But there is no doubt that a conscientious man such as himself must be familiar with the ISAF rules for deploying fighter jets. These include the general Rules of Engagement (ROE) for the Afghanistan mission and the Standing Operation Procedures (SOP), in this case SOP 311 for close air support.

There is a binding decision matrix to avoid "collateral damage" as well as "special instructions."

These are complemented by the revised Tactical Directive issued by ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal in August. "We have to think and act differently," the general wrote. "The conflict will be won by persuading the people, not by destroying the enemy."

According to the general, if there is a risk of civilian casualties, ISAF commanders should call off air support at the last minute and allow the enemy to escape. Commanders require at least two mutually independent sources before they can request air strikes.

The target categories are described in these rules. Air support can be requested when there are "troops in contact," the operation would hit "time sensitive targets," or specific persons or objects would be eliminated. These are known as deliberate targets.

The requesting commander can only order air strikes if there is an imminent threat for troops in contact with the enemy. It is baffling that Colonel Klein and his forward air controller reported "troops in contact" although no ISAF ground troops were in the vicinity of the fuel tankers stuck on the river.

As the two F-15 fighter jets circled over Kunduz, Klein apparently changed the rationale for the operation. Now he referred to "time sensitive targets" and said there was an "imminent threat." However, the trucks were obviously going nowhere, and had been stuck for four hours.

An Imminent Threat to German Soldiers?

Klein knew that in a past incident the insurgents had detonated a tanker truck in Kandahar, killing dozens of civilians. He had also received visits from a number of leading politicians, from Merkel and Steinmeier as well as Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung (CDU) and his predecessor Peter Struck (SPD). Klein knows that they fear nothing more than an attack on German troops shortly before the upcoming parliamentary elections.

In August an informant reported that the Taliban were talking about overrunning the German camp. He said that there were plans to crash through the first barrier using a truck loaded with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber. The informant said that a second truck, also loaded with explosives, would follow. In addition, reports had come in over the past few weeks that a number of suicide attacks were being planned against the Germans.

All of this was going through Colonel Klein's head. This was a great deal of information, and it was complex. He needed to seek advice, but he consulted neither his legal adviser, as is customary for important decisions, nor his superiors, as would normally be in keeping with his otherwise cautious manner. His only advisers on that night were a captain and a staff sergeant.

Klein spoke once again with the informant on location, his C-3 source. He asked: "Are there any civilians nearby? No children? No buildings?" The answer in each case was "no." Then Klein issued the order: "permission to engage." A quarter of an hour later, the fighter jets reported "weapons impact" after dropping two GBU-38 bombs, each weighing approximately 250 kilograms (500 pounds). These are highly accurate, thanks to a GPS guidance system. On the ground, the fuel tankers were transformed into an inferno.

'If They Kill Civilians, They Should Go Home'

Some of the victims of the air strike are still in the hospital at Kunduz. Mohammed Nur, a young farmer from Aliabad, is lying on a sturdy steel bed, his hands and feet wrapped in heavy gauze bandages. He is suffering from second-degree burns. Nur says he was sitting with relatives eating the evening meal to break fasting during the month of Ramadan. They were having shurwa -- chicken soup -- and it was 7:00 p.m. when three armed Taliban suddenly appeared in the doorway and demanded that they drive tractors down to the river. They said there were tankers stuck in the sand there, and they had to be pulled out. Mohammed obeyed. There were 30 to 40 armed Taliban standing on the riverbank, he says, and they were surrounded by a huge crowd, all holding large containers which they were filling with fuel.

The Taliban had called up their friends and relatives and told them that they could come get free fuel here. Nur and his relatives worked for hours on the trucks, trying to haul them out of the mud. People continued to stream to the site to stock up on fuel. There may have been hundreds of them during the course of the night, he says. "Of course we knew that the fuel was stolen, but we were forced to go there," says the slim patient, lying under sheets with a flowery print. He tries to smile -- he doesn't yet know that his two brothers died there.

Mohammadi, a frail man with a beard and sunken cheeks, blames the German soldiers: "If they can give us no security, if they kill civilians instead, then they should go home." He says that his father died in the flames of the exploding trucks. The neighbors, who are Taliban supporters, had pulled his father out of his house at night, he says, and forced him to go down to the river bed. When he arrived, he was put to work by the Taliban filling canisters with fuel and placing them on a tractor. He says that his father was a simple farmer, a civilian -- not a Taliban.

It is difficult to say whether those killed were civilians, Taliban or Taliban supporters, yet this remains a key question, at least from the Germans' perspective. Does a farmer only become an adversary when he is carrying a weapon? Or is it enough for him to carry fuel for the Taliban? And does it matter what he is thinking at the time?

Lieutenant General Mirza Mohammed Yarmand has been researching the incident on behalf of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and has spoken with hundreds of people over the past five days. At first glance, Yarmand's conclusions sound unequivocal: "Most of them are Taliban supporters," based on information that he says he has received from the NDS, the Afghan intelligence agency. But then things start to sound a lot less straightforward: He says that it isn't easy to differentiate between who is a hardliner, who is a relative, who is a friend and who only happened to find out about the trucks. There are no clear-cut boundaries.

'Bombs Sow the Seeds of Hate'

After the air strikes, leading members of the provincial government gathered in an office in downtown Kunduz. The men sat in a circle, wearing large turbans and colorful silk cloaks laid over their shoulders. Everyone listened as Mohamadullah Wardak, a large man with gold spectacles and a gold tooth, lectured them about the "false sense of humanity" of the Westerners, who now regretted the deaths of the terrorists' helpers: "A few more air strikes like that, and the Taliban would soon be finished." Everyone nodded.

But towards the end of the meeting, Maulawi Ebadullah Ahadi raised his hand. He is a slender man who speaks softly and comes from Chahar Dara, where the Taliban are strong, and where he has not been able to return for the past year. "Brothers, each of those killed has a hundred relatives who will then fight against the government. Bombs sow the seeds of hate."

'Of Course We Had Orders to Attack NATO Convoys'

Mullah Shamsuddin already has a deep-seeded hatred of the West. He is a high-ranking Taliban and one of the most infamous commanders in the region surrounding Kunduz. When he received a call on his mobile phone from Mullah Abdul Rahman last Thursday evening at around 9:00 p.m., he was amazed, and then delighted. Without further ado, Rahman told his boss Shamsuddin that his 20 men had taken control of two NATO fuel trucks in Aliabad, over 20 kilometers (13 miles) south of Kunduz. Now Rahman was asking for instructions.

Shamsuddin was surprised. "Of course we all had orders to attack NATO transport convoys, if we had the opportunity," he told SPIEGEL last week over the phone, "but I never would have believed that we would have managed to take a number of vehicles under our control."

What Rahman told him seemed almost too good to be true. During the night the insurgents had set up a checkpoint on the main road, as usual, when the convoy approached them. Since the vehicles were only guarded by a handful of security personnel, the Taliban had the upper hand. "The commander said that there was a brief exchange of fire and that a number of vehicles had broken through our checkpoint," says Shamsuddin. Two of the fuel tankers couldn't accelerate fast enough, and the Taliban immediately killed one of the drivers and took the other one prisoner. In contrast to all previous reports, Rahman said that the driver's throat had not been cut, but that he had been executed "with a shot to the head."

According to Shamsuddin, he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do with the two tankers at the time. "We simply planned to drive them to Chahar Dara and unload the fuel there," he says. "We can always use more supplies."

Shamsuddin rejects the theory circulated by the Bundeswehr and the German Defense Ministry that the Taliban intended to convert the trucks into bombs on wheels. "Every weapon against the Germans and ISAF is fine with us," he boasts, "but fuel tankers are far too impractical in terrain like this." Less than 20 minutes after the first conversation, Rahman was on the phone again. Their seized trucks were stuck in a sandbank on the Kunduz River, he said, and they couldn't budge.

A New and Regrettable Page in German History

Shamsuddin went to bed feeling disappointed. At 1:50 a.m. he was jolted awake by the sound of the explosion. The attack did little damage to the Taliban, he now says. Only Rahman and a few of his men were standing around the tankers at the time of the explosion. "In Jihad," he says, "you have to accept" the death of fighting men.

His adversary in Kunduz holds the opposite view. Colonel Klein was not willing to accept the death of his people, and he has suddenly written a new and regrettable page in German history. He of all people, say those who know Klein. The colonel from Germany's Rhineland region is a quiet man, who seems oddly sensitive, a tea drinker, someone who wants to do everything right.

One of Klein's best friends talked with him over the phone after the attack and says: "Georg made this decision and he stands by it 100 percent, with all the consequences." One thing is certain, he adds, Klein is not going to try to put the blame on anyone else. "But if it really turns out that something wasn't done the way it should have been done, then he is in for an extremely rough ride. Then he is going to be dealing with this for a long time to come."

Klein hails from Bendorf on the Rhine, from a family with seven children. His father was in the river police. In 1980, Klein graduated from a local high school. The year before, he had signed up for the German army as an officer candidate with a commitment to serve 12 years.

'A Level-Headed Officer'

"He's a human being though and through," says one master sergeant who served under Klein in the 154th Armored Battalion in the Rhineland-Palatinate town of Westerburg. Even then, Klein did not allow his orders to be followed rigidly, but was mindful of their purpose and whether the end justified the means. One time, he stopped a 36-hour exercise because of bad weather. Long-serving sergeants grumbled that in the past they would just have got on with it.

By all accounts, his image does not seem to fit with that of man who issued such a reckless order in Afghanistan.

One of his former commanding officers called him a very level-headed officer. Klein frequents museums, likes going to the opera and ballet, listens to classical music and reads the German classics.

Colonel Klein's tragedy is that, of all people, an officer who always tended to be cautious gave what is perhaps one of most disastrous orders of the Afghanistan mission.

When a German soldier at a checkpoint shot and killed an Afghan boy in August -- and the father accused the Germans of firing without warning -- Klein went to the parent to apologize. This time, though, there are too many dead for him to give his personal condolences.

The German legal system is also looking into Colonel Klein's order. A special unit of the public prosecutor's office in Dresden began examining the case last week. It aims to determine whether Klein could have committed a punishable offense, and whether the current probe should become a formal investigation. The investigators will do this from Dresden; they currently have no plans to travel to Kunduz.

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."

Creeping Belligerence in German Operation

The belligerence creeping into the German operation in the Hindu Kush is evident not only in the firmer approach of the troops. There has been a shift of emphasis in the rules of engagement, too. On April 8, a number of German caveats, which place restrictions on operational capability in Afghanistan, were deleted from a NATO document. One of them was the following: "The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is occurring or is imminent." In March 2006, the Germans had added this sentence as a "national clarification" to the operations plan for Afghanistan -- Bundeswehr soldiers should only shoot in self-defense.

The so-called pocket card with instructions for German soldiers, which had previously emphasized self-defense, was also revised this summer. Now the emphasis is on the measures involving the use of force that are permitted in order to accomplish the mission. All this has brought the Bundeswehr closer to killing. But an escalation such as the air strike was not part of the plan.

The Germans came under strong international pressure because of the attack. An informal meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Stockholm on the weekend of Sept. 5-6 turned into an indictment of the German deployment. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that the bombing was "a big mistake" and it needed to be thoroughly investigated. His British counterpart David Miliband called for an "urgent investigation" and said it was important to "make sure that it doesn't happen again."

German-Bashing

The Germans were initially defenseless in response to the criticism. Then German ambassadors in Europe's capitals lodged protests and said they would not accept further criticism until the case had been fully investigated.

But the "German-bashing" continued under the protection of anonymity. One German diplomat spoke of a wave of "schadenfreude against the eternal know-it-alls." "The Germans are by far not as popular in Europe as they believe themselves to be," said Günter Verheugen, the German vice president of the European Commission.

The Germans themselves are also partly responsible for that situation. For years, the Berlin government saw themselves as the top experts on Afghanistan. Few of their partners were safe from their helpful tips.

In particular, Berlin liked to give advice to the Americans. When over 20 civilians died in a US bombing in Helmand province in May 2007, Defense Minister Jung gave the Americans a reprimanding lecture. "This is exactly the wrong way to do things," he told Washington, saying that concrete change was needed.

SPD floor leader Peter Struck, a former defense minister, went the furthest in his criticism and even began to explain the Americans' mistake in terms of psychology. The US national security adviser, James Jones, was "actually a cautious and sensible man," said Struck -- the problem was with the military. "It is the soldiers and officers on the ground who, partly out of fear for their lives, tend to shoot first -- regardless of the consequences," he said.

Now this seems to be exactly what happened to the Germans in Kunduz. Only a few months ago, the Bundeswehr air strike would have elicited a sardonic "Welcome to the club" from the Americans, who at the time saw high-altitude air strikes as a key component of their mission.

But when General Stanley A. McChrystal took over the command of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan in June of this year, the strategy changed. The Americans had realized that past attacks with drones and combat aircraft involved too many Afghan civilian casualties. The US was increasingly perceived as a threat, causing sympathy for the Taliban to grow.

Hearts and Minds

Ironically, it is the Germans, who had repeatedly demanded such a sea change, who are not playing along with the new strategy. The bombing of the tanker trucks corresponded neither to the spirit nor the letter of the new directive.

In that respect, the air strike was also an attack on McChrystal's credibility. In a video message, he immediately communicated his sympathy to "the great people of Afghanistan" and said that "as commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people."

McChrystal wants to win the hearts and minds of the population -- and with them, the war. Having strongly scaled back air support, he would like to replace it with more troops on the ground.

Up until now, an increase in troop levels to 68,000 by the end of the year has been foreseen. McChrystal has talked of an additional increase without naming a figure. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, previously an opponent of an increased commitment in Afghanistan, is now open to such an expansion of the war. Sending an additional 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers to Afghanistan is currently being discussed in Washington, albeit only semi-publicly so far.

Small Successes

The issue for the Americans and all the other nations involved in the operation is whether Afghanistan can be handed over to its people in the foreseeable future; and if so, in what condition.

Many small projects have been successful in Afghanistan. Schools and roads have been built, millions of children are back in school and 80 percent of the population has access to basic health care.

But the huge reconstruction project that is Afghanistan, a project that promised to bring peace, democracy and prosperity to the country, has nevertheless failed. The beautiful plans forged at negotiating tables in Europe and the US had little to do with reality -- not with the reality in Afghanistan and not with the reality in the West. No one there was really ready to accept the enormous burden that needs to be shouldered if the Afghanistan project is to succeed.

Germany agreed to train the police. The Germans opened a model police academy in Kabul. They produced a few thousand police officers who are so good that they could put together a criminal case that would stand up in a German court. But Afghanistan doesn't really need such expertise. What it needs is village policemen -- and not a few thousand, but tens of thousands of them. The fact that people do not feel protected is the main reason for the failure of the West in Afghanistan.

The Italians were responsible for judicial reform. Credible prosecutors and courts are a rarity. The formula for justice in Afghanistan is simple: Anyone who can afford it can act with complete impunity. Drug barons, mafia kingpins, landlords and business people can all buy court rulings.

The British were responsible for the war on drugs, but two years ago, Afghanistan produced 8,200 tons of opium -- more than total global consumption. Production is now declining, but the British cannot take credit for that. Meanwhile, a narco-state has emerged, which is reflected in the treacherous symbiosis of politicians, the mafia and the rebels. All of them benefit from business as usual.

A Successful Canadian Model

Militarily, this war is unwinnable. The strategy based on the belief that if enough insurgents are killed, the enemy would be crushed and forced into withdrawing, has proven itself to be unsuccessful. The flow of insurgents is endless, and every new death produces dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of new enemies -- brothers, sons and cousins who want revenge.

But withdrawal is currently not an option. The country would fall into chaos, and the ambitions of neighbors such as Iran and Pakistan loom large. There is a real risk of a terrorist state being created. Specifying a concrete withdrawal date also doesn't help. In that case, the population would only begin preparing itself for the time afterwards -- the new era of the Taliban. All cooperation with ISAF would end immediately.

Incumbent Hamid Karzai will probably win the country's second presidential election -- which took place on Aug. 20 and whose full results have not yet been announced -- without needing a run-off. Even if many officials in his government are corrupt, the West should work as closely as possible with him to retain influence in the country. Less arrogance and more partnership, the involvement of the country's difficult neighbors, a crackdown on terrorists, protecting the population and providing systematic assistance to the Afghan people is the only way out of Afghanistan.

Growing Trust

In Kandahar, the Canadians have recently had success with a new approach. In every village in which they have driven out the Taliban, they leave behind a platoon of 30 men to guarantee security for the villagers. They explain to the village elders that they have come to stay. The soldiers and aid workers have money at their disposal and they implement visible aid projects. But the decisive factor is the trust that grows slowly between the foreigners and the population, evidently with success. The Afghans now often provide important information when Taliban attacks are planned or roadside bombs are laid.

US Marines have attempted something similar in the drugs-and-Taliban stronghold of Helmand province. Feared as "shock troops," they now live in remote villages in police stations together with Afghan security forces, exactly as McChrystal has ordered. He has said that American troops should "embrace" the Afghans and "talk, eat and live" with them.

The Germans could also take this advice to heart. It is of little use to entrench themselves in massive military camps in Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif while having to exert herculean efforts to maintain proper security.

In any case, Colonel Klein's fatal act has galvanized the German government. Merkel has proposed a parliamentary conference on Afghanistan and wants to see "measurable" progress in training the Afghan army and police.

Laying the Groundwork for Withdrawal

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is going one step further. He doesn't want withdrawal immediately, but wants to make preparations for it.

In a two-page paper drawn up by the Foreign Ministry titled "10 Steps for Afghanistan," it reads: "In the coming legislative period, the aim is to lay the groundwork for the withdrawal from Afghanistan. We must now set the right course."

In regard to future development assistance, the Steinmeier paper calls for "specific, binding targets and also effective arrangements to oversee implementation." The next conference on Afghanistan, which Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to be held later this year, "should not be content with vague targets," the document continues.

According to the paper, all 122 districts of the German-controlled north of the country are to have "properly trained police" by 2011. Some 1,500 additional police officers should be trained immediately in the flashpoint of Kunduz, the document proposes, while the total number of German instructors for the Afghan army, currently 200, is to be "significantly increased."

The paper even outlines the first stages of a withdrawal. Faizabad, where nearly 500 Bundeswehr soldiers are currently stationed, will be transformed by 2011 into a "training center for security forces and civil administration." In addition, Germany has to "make it possible for Taliban sympathizers to return to Afghan society." To this end, it should "support, including financially, reintegration funds to the best of its ability."

This is no guarantee for success, but it is, at last, a basis for a German debate on Afghanistan, and hopefully it is not too late.

'The Sympathy for the Germans Is Gone'

Dr. Safi Sidique was on duty in Kunduz hospital on the Friday morning when the wounded came from Omar Khel with charred bodies and severed limbs. There were 12 patients in total, and one of them died that same night. The youngest there was 10 years old; two others were 14 and 15. There were Taliban among the wounded. "I treat everyone," says the doctor.

Sidique wears a blue doctor's smock and white plastic shoes. He stands with arms folded in front of a medicine cabinet containing intravenous fluids. The doctor has developed a keen eye for which of his patients are loyal to whom -- he sees it in the way their visitors dress and wear their beards.

Sidique knows what people at the hospital think about the bombing. "Simple village people were killed. They were not Taliban," he says. "The German air strike has changed everything. The sympathy for the Germans is gone. Would it be any different for you if your homeland was bombed?"

RALF BESTE, JÜRGEN DAHLKAMP, ULRIKE DEMMER, MATTHIAS GEBAUER, SUSANNE KOELBL, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, HANS-JÜRGEN SCHLAMP, HOLGER STARK, GABOR STEINGART AND ALEXANDER SZANDAR

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