The future of Germany's Afghanistan mission will also hinge on the question of how Colonel Klein arrived at his decision to issue the "weapons release" command, and why he apparently neglected to warn the crowd of people gathered around the tankers on the ground.
The crews manning the F-15 fighters had asked the German colonel and his forward air controller in Kunduz whether they should first fly their jets at low altitude over the tankers. Such a "show of force" -- as the method is known in military jargon -- would have given the Taliban fighters and civilians the opportunity to flee. Klein apparently turned down the request, thereby "omitting" one of the escalation levels which, according to NATO procedures, need to precede an air strike, officials in Berlin said last week.
According to information SPIEGEL has obtained, the pilots asked whether the situation posed an "imminent threat." Klein, through his forward air controller, responded with a terse "confirmed." The air commander, a master sergeant, was code-named "Red Baron," a reference to Manfred von Richthofen, a German pilot credited with having shot down 80 airplanes in World War I.
The American pilots also asked Klein's air commander twice whether German forces had had contact with the enemy -- "troops in contact," in the jargon. The response, once again, was: "Confirmed." In truth, however, it appears that German forces from the Kunduz base had not been deployed to carry out reconnaissance of the situation in the riverbed where the tanker trucks were. The fact that the tankers had been stuck in the riverbed for hours meant they probably posed no acute threat to the base.
In the absence of enemy contact or an acute threat, Klein lacked the authority to order the air strike by himself. If a commander's own forces are not under acute threat, he is required to consult with ISAF headquarters in Kabul before ordering an air strike. And if there is a risk of civilian casualties, then an air strike can only be authorized by NATO's Joint Force Command in the Dutch town of Brunssum.
The charges are serious. They suggest that Klein and the "Red Baron" may have not told the pilot the truth and that the air strike was ordered on the basis of false information.
Klein's superior has defended the colonel's actions until now. The details of the incident remain unclear, Bundeswehr Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Germany's highest-ranking officer, told defense experts in the German parliament on Wednesday following his return from a brief visit to Kunduz.
An excuse for Klein's failure to warn people on the ground has been circulating among Klein's colleagues at the Defense Ministry in Berlin. They claim that a loud, low-altitude warning maneuver would not have been necessary for the "participants" who had congregated around the tanker trucks during the night; the jets, they say, had already been patrolling the skies over the site for some time, thereby giving sufficient audible forewarning to the people in the riverbed. However, the people on the ground had probably believed, like many people in Afghanistan, that the Germans preferred to exercise caution when it came to the use of force.