ANALYSIS: Kunduz crisis crushes trust in German army abroad
By Jeff Black Nov 27, 2009, 13:36 GMT
Berlin - Almost three months after the deadly NATO airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that killed as many as 142 people, the event claimed its third political victim in Germany on Friday.
The then-German defence minister, Franz Josef Jung, resigned his current post as labour minister Friday after a newspaper report was published suggesting he lied to the public about civilian casualties in the attack.
This came 24 hours after the army's top officer, General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and a defence ministry official also quit.
On September 4, Georg Klein, a German colonel in charge of the Kunduz Provincial Recontruction Team (a joint civilian- military effort) called for a US air-force strike on two oil tankers that had been hijacked by Afghan militants.
In the ensuing fireball, dozens of militants and bystanders - probably villagers opportunistically taking fuel from the trucks - were killed.
In Germany, the incident smouldered slowly for twelve weeks, but then exploded Thursday, when video evidence and documents emerged showing that the army immediately knew there had been innocent victims, and had passed that knowledge up the chain of command.
Yet Jung continued for days afterward to say 'to the best of my knowledge, there were only terrorist Taliban killed.'
The crisis had threatened to become the most severe of Chancellor Angela Merkel's four years in power, and accordingly the top military and civilian leadership of the army have been sacrificed.
Jung's resignation - undoubtedly ordained by the Chancellor herself - may be able to draw a line under the affair at home.
However, the trust which binds a reluctant German public to military action abroad and Afghans and allies to the intervention of the Germans in the Hindu Kush has been very badly damaged.
First, the German military leadership has been shown as being closed and even deceitful under pressure - and this in an organization that has been at pains since its post-World War II foundation to demonstrate its good intentions, its harmlessness.
This is particularly bad news at a time when the Afghan war in Germany was unpopular anyway - the rising Left Party campaigned successfully in September's general election on a platform of immediate withdrawal of troops from the mission.
If the actions of the top brass in withholding such information were inexcusable, they are at least comprehensible.
It also damages further the German army's trust in politics. The average German soldier, operating under increasing duress in the Kunduz province, can find himself facing hostility and even civilian prosecution at home for actions abroad - as is the case with Colonel Klein.
Legally speaking, Germany is not at war in Afghanistan, and it still isn't clear under what set of laws the military is operating.
This has brought discontent and nervousness within the ranks, because the political class has never called the Afghan war what it is, but rather a variety of nebulous terms ranging from 'robust security deployment' to 'warlike situation.'
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it has damaged perhaps beyond repair the Germans' reputation in Afghanistan itself.
Germany was supposed to be the 'good army' there, the one that didn't just shoot first, and ask questions later.
But the Kunduz airstrike - a decision made in the context of an increasing threat to German troops from Afghan militants - and the Germans' nervousness about engaging in face-to-face fighting, has put paid to that.
Last week, Kunduz Governor Mohammed Omar told the Spiegel magazine 'when we call for assistance in a firefight, they (the German forces) often have to request an order from the headquarters in Mazar-i- Sharif. And then they come too late,' Omar said.
'To be honest,' Omar said, 'it would be better if they left our province.'
The Kunduz situation is the harvest of Germany's long transition from a 'special' European country, one that bore responsibility for the horrors of the Second World War and was determined to pay back its debt, to a 'normal' Western ally of the US.
Germany's involvement in Afghanistan - in contrast to its principled rejection of the invasion of Iraq - was on the basis that it was a 'just war.'
Accordingly, the army positioned itself very much in the vanguard of humanitarian development and reconstruction there, rather than the bloody business of defeating the Taliban.
But having signed up eight years ago for the good war, Germany is learning now that with the projection of military power into other countries, there is always a moral price to pay.