German government on defensive over Afghan strike
The government denies changing rules of engagement in Afghanistan following accusations the September strike was a commander’s attempt to “destroy” Taliban militants.
Berlin – Germany denied on Monday that it had changed its rules of engagement in Afghanistan, as further damaging allegations about a September air strike put the government on the defensive.
The German commander who called in the 4 September strike, Colonel Georg Klein, did so in order to "destroy" Taliban militants, and not just two stolen fuel trucks he feared would be used to attack his troops, media reports said.
Opposition politicians said that if this was the case, this breached the terms of the parliamentary mandate for Germany's 4,300 troops in Afghanistan, and demanded to know if the rules had been changed.
They called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to make a statement in parliament to shed light on the incident, which has already claimed the scalps of Germany's top general and the defence minister at the time.
Merkel's spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm told a regular briefing on Monday dominated by the affair that any suggestion that there was a new policy in Afghanistan was "unfounded".
"The mandate ... allows for military force to be brought into play in Afghanistan providing it is not excessive and has the approval of the military commanders on the ground," Wilhelm said. "We act within the mandate."
He also said a parliamentary commission looking into the air strike, which was due to convene for the first time this week, would leave no stone unturned.
"On 4 September at 0150 I decided to destroy with air power two fuel tankers stolen on 3 September as well as INS (insurgents) at the vehicles," Spiegel magazine cited a two-page report by Klein as saying.
Another report, by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), cited in German newspapers, went further: "He wanted to attack the people, not the vehicles."
"It is difficult to determine why the focus of (Klein) was on the Taliban in the target area and not just on the stolen tankers, which posed the greater danger to the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) forces," it said.
The strike killed more than 100 people, including between 60 and 80 insurgents, newspapers cited the critical, classified ISAF report as saying.
Media reports also turned up the heat on Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who forced the German military's top general, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and a senior defence ministry official to quit over the affair in November.
Franz Josef Jung, who had been defence minister at the time of the attack, also stepped down from his new post of labour minister following intense political pressure.
Guttenberg, 38, a rising star of the German political scene, at first said the air strike was "military appropriate" and then changed his mind after receiving additional information that he said had been withheld from him.
But newspapers said that Guttenberg already had the ISAF report, which contained enough information for him to be able to determine that the air strike was questionable.
There are also conflicting accounts of his dealings with Schneiderhan and the official, Peter Wichert, suggesting that Guttenberg's account is not accurate, Spiegel magazine and other reports said.
On Monday, Guttenberg said he would not resign. A spokesman for the defence ministry said that his meetings with Schneiderhan and Wichert were confidential.
The spokesman, Steffen Moritz, also reiterated that the two men had "taken responsibility for information being withheld."
Juergen Trittin, a parliamentary group leader for the opposition Greens, called on Monday for Guttenberg to fall on his sword, saying the minister had "knowingly not told the truth".
AFP / Expatica