September 21, 2009 — -- The investigators have now arrived on the scene. They are staying at Colonel Georg Klein's base in Afghanistan, where they are questioning personnel, inspecting the premises and equipment and listening to recordings of radio communications. Their goal is to determine whether Klein can be held accountable for what happened.
Colonel Georg Klein is still in Kunduz, even though his six-month tour of duty there was scheduled to end this week. Under normal circumstances, he would have been able to go home by now, but Klein is forced to remain in Kunduz; if he were to leave Afghanistan, it would look like an admission of guilt.
He meets daily with the chief investigator, Canadian NATO Major-General C.S. Sullivan. By now Klein is probably asking himself how it could have happened, how he could have issued that fateful command on Sept. 4. Sources in Kunduz say his nerves are becoming increasingly frayed.
His command -- "Weapons release!" -- consisted of only two words. And yet it appears to have led to the killing of 100 people, including civilians, in addition to reigniting the debate over the German military mission in Afghanistan.
"At 1:51 a.m., I decided to give the order," Klein writes in a report on the incident submitted to the German Defense Ministry in Berlin. After that, two American F-15 fighter jets dropped two bombs, hitting two tanker trucks a group of Taliban militants had hijacked more than five hours earlier.
It now seems clear that the air strike was a mistake. But there are growing indications that Klein may have violated regulations in the process. Investigators are looking into whether Klein properly informed the pilots over the gravity of the situation and whether he may have skipped a level in the escalation ladder.
The air strike has changed the political situation in Germany. The left-wing Left Party -- the only major German political party that advocates an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan -- took advantage of the incident to call for a major antiwar protest at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. A short time later, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier unveiled a plan outlining how Germany could initiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, classified International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) documents suggest that the Bundeswehr will actually be drawn more deeply into the conflict, facing the prospect of more, not less, combat action.
A new al-Qaida video released on Friday included a threatening message in German directed at German voters and Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Afghanistan policy.
In the video, Bekkay Harrach, a German-Moroccan who intelligence services believe belongs to the middle level of the al-Qaida leadership, threatens attacks on German soil if the outcome of the Sept. 27 election signals a continuation of the country's Afghanistan mission. "The German government is not taking the threat from al-Qaida seriously enough," Harrach says in the video, which government officials believe is authentic. The terrorist also warns Muslims living in Germany to avoid any places that are not "essential to daily life" during the two weeks following the election. Since Friday, federal police officers armed with submachine guns have been stationed at German airports and train stations in response to the al-Qaida threat. The conflict in Afghanistan is suddenly making its presence felt in Germany.
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.
During that fateful night, Klein and his air controller were sitting in their command post at the dimly lit Tactical Operations Center. They were in contact with an Afghan informant, considered reliable, who had reported that the people gathered around the trucks were all Taliban. In addition, the two Germans were looking at blurred video images transmitted by the fighter jets in real time to a "Rover 3" device.
The Rover 3, which resembles a conventional laptop, is not the latest model. Its black-and-white images are not clear enough for individuals' weapons to be easily identified. "You can still see a bazooka quite clearly," says an officer familiar with the Rover 3, "but not an ordinary Kalashnikov."
Because of these shortcomings, Klein's predecessor had already requested the "significantly more powerful Rover 4 system" last year, according to a Bundeswehr report. The device was "urgently needed" for forces located in main conflict areas such as Kunduz, Brigadier General Jörg Vollmer, the commander of German troops in northern Afghanistan, wrote in August, just 10 days before the attack.
Because of the "complexity of the software," Rover operators should be trained at home in Germany instead of waiting until after their arrival in Afghanistan, according to a confidential memo written in October 2008. "This includes making the system available and approving it for training purposes in Germany," the memo continues. But in the past the US Air Force has only made the necessary aircraft available in Germany in exceptional cases.
An even more serious concern has been the relatively poor coordination between Germans and Americans, even on strategic matters. The NATO ambassadors of the 28 member states met last week at NATO headquarters in Brussels to listen to a report by General Stanley McChrystal, who has been commander of the ISAF stabilization forces in Afghanistan since June. In the half-hour report, transmitted by video link, the US general explained the strategy with which he intends to fight the insurgency in Afghanistan.
McChrystal, who called for "new thinking," said that the conflict could only be won by winning over the civilian population, and not "simply by killing insurgents." Under the new strategy, McChrystal said, the allied forces were to reduce their emphasis on air strikes and do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties.
His words sent a chill down the spines of the German diplomats and senior military officials attending the meeting, as they thought of Colonel Klein and the new tactics German forces had adopted. German troops are now belatedly doing what the Americans and other allies have wanted them to do for years, as they begin taking the fight to the Taliban and showing less concern for civilian casualties.
"An immediate and extensive improvement of the situation throughout Kunduz province cannot be achieved with the current contingent of German forces," Brigadier General Vollmer writes in his progress report. To defeat the Taliban, Vollmer continues, more troops, armored vehicles and combat helicopters are needed. "The influence of the insurgents cannot be significantly reduced with conventional forces and the current approach."
The Germans could soon have the opportunity to test their new strategy in areas other than the relatively secure north. In the 70 pages of his 60-day progress report distributed on Thursday to members of the NATO Council, McChrystal calls for more troops in Afghanistan, although he argues that improving the allies' commitment to civilian reconstruction is even more important.
McChrystal now wants to divide Afghanistan into regional danger zones, classified as 1, 2 or 3 depending on the level of threat, which would diminish the importance of the current division into four geographic zones (north, south, east and west). In addition, McChrystal's plan calls for limiting the NATO effort to hot spots in the future. The plan is to secure the peace in 15 to 20 critical provinces, partly through massive military deployments but also through even greater civilian efforts.
To be able to implement this strategy, however, McChrystal would have to eliminate the current restrictions on where troops can be deployed. "This will soon lead to calls for German soldiers to begin fighting in the south," fears a senior German officer. Up until now, German forces have been restricted to the less violent north of the country.
For McChrystal, setting clear goals for Afghan security forces is even more critical. Under his new plan, the size of the Afghan national army would be increased to about 250,000 troops and that of the Afghan police to 160,000 officers by 2013.
In setting these parameters, the American general squarely disagrees with the opinion of German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung. More than two weeks ago, Jung announced that Afghanistan would be capable of providing its own security with a military force of 134,000 troops and the same number of police officers. McChrystal's new strategy, however, will likely trigger new demands on the Germans to provide significantly more trainers and resources.
List of Deficiencies
But the Germans should first of all focus on providing better training and equipment for their own soldiers. It's not just the Rover devices which leave something to be desired. General Vollmer's classified report provides a sharp contrast to Defense Minister Jung's claims that the soldiers in Afghanistan are properly equipped and trained. According to an earlier SPIEGEL report on equipment deficiencies, Jung's press spokesman, Thomas Raabe, "proudly" reiterated in late August "that we have very good equipment." Unfortunately, this is inconsistent with the general's experience, judging by the long list of deficiencies he submitted in August.
On sunny days, the temperature inside a "Marder" armored personnel carrier can reach 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit). Even soldiers who are used to saunas cannot tolerate such temperatures for more than half an hour, say doctors. The Marder has been used in Afghanistan for close to three years, yet it still lacks air-conditioning.
Despite military officials' claims to the contrary, German armored vehicles have many deficiencies. Between January and July alone, a total of 38 German vehicles have "broken down or been destroyed" -- and they have not been properly replaced. This, Vollmer writes, has "diminished operational capabilities, particularly in the Kunduz region."
In the Kunduz area, according to the brigadier general, "incidents relevant to security," such as attacks with explosives, suicide bombings and gun battles, "have reached an unprecedented level." This has prompted Vollmer to call for better training of German troops at home. For infantry troops, this means improving training in such areas as "attack preparedness" and "response," "searching urban areas and buildings," "ambush situations" and "gun battles."
The realities in Afghanistan stand in sharp contrast to Jung's claims. According to the German defense minister, the Bundeswehr's mission is to protect, assist, act as an intermediary and -- last of all -- fight.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan