Germany and the US both sought to deflect blame for a recent airstrike in Afghanistan aimed at insurgents but which may have killed dozens of civilians. The matter could open a rift between the NATO allies.
According to a report by the US daily the Washington Post, a NATO fact finding team on the ground in Kunduz has estimated that as many as 125 people were killed in the airstrike on Friday. At least two dozen of them reportedly were civilians.
The paper also reported that a German commander, Col. Georg Klein, had ordered the airstrike based on intelligence from only one Afghan informant. Using only one single source would be a violation of NATO rules aimed at reducing civilian casualties.
The German Defense Ministry has said the report painted their commander in a poor light and played up the US version of events. The ministry said the article would “definitely influence at least the preliminary investigation by the various bodies.”
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman General Eric Tremblay denied there had been any breach of NATO rules.
He said that investigators had already arrived in northern Kunduz province, where the bombing took place on Friday, to “talk to the patients, talk to the villagers, to local authorities, to get some information,” but had not yet reported any findings. Nor had ISAF come up with a definitive death toll, he said.
Local Afghan officials earlier said the raid had killed scores of people, mainly armed Taliban fighters, but also six civilians, and left numerous others wounded.
The officials said Sunday that a total of 56 people died in the airstrike – 54 in the airstrike and two, a father and son, who were killed earlier by insurgents.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung has defended the airstrike, saying it had been aimed at two hijacked fuel tankers which the Taliban could have driven toward Kunduz city six kilometers away to attack a large German base.
Jung told the German Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the Bundeswehr had clear indications of a pending attack. “Therefore I regard the decision of the German commander’s on location as correct,” he said.
“The airstrike was absolutely necessary,” Jung added. “I cannot comprehend how some can so quickly criticize the military action without knowing what the situation was or the background information.”
But at EU talks in Stockholm on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner described the airstrike as a “big mistake.” Kouchner said the international forces’ strategy must be to work with the Afghan people, “not to bombard them.” EU Commissioner for External Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner called the airstrike a “great tragedy.”
A top US and NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, criticized what he called a slow response time by German troops who he said let too many hours pass before visiting the site of the bombing on Friday.
Smith said it was important to have a troop presence on the ground following strikes to determine the outcome of an attack before enemy troops could come out with their own version of events.
Inspecting the site on Saturday, the top commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal, also hit on German troops’ response time. “Why didn’t (Regional Command) North come here quicker?” he asked the German commander, Col. Klein.
McChrystal also said he regarded the possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans “very seriously,” adding that he had ordered a full investigation into the incident.
He did not confirm casualty figures but pledged medical treatment for civilians wounded. McChrystal has recently laid emphasis on protecting civilians as his priority for a revamped counter-insurgency strategy. The office of Hamid Karzai, the incumbent Afghan president awaiting election results, said 90 people had been killed or injured.
Green party co-leader Juergen Trittin said Friday’s order to make the airstrike near Kunduz contradicted the changed US strategy to protect Afghanistan’s civil population. “Chancellor Merkel must rein in her overwhelmed defense minister and take over the responsibility herself,” he said.
According to Bild am Sonntag, state prosecutors in Potsdam, close to where the German armed forces have their operational headquarters, are examining whether to open a formal investigation against the German commander in Kunduz.
In other news out of Afghanistan, the Bundeswehr said on Saturday that a suicide bomber had injured five German soldiers and a local interpreter travelling in a convoy five kilometers north of Kunduz.
Germany has some 4,200 troops stationed mainly in northern Afghanistan. Opinion polls show that two-thirds of Germans oppose the mission.