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German troops get the Afghan blues

Kunduz — Just days before elections back home, German soldiers in Afghanistan feel under siege from Taliban attacks and controversy over an air strike that killed a number of civilians.

In northern Afghanistan, German soldiers defend Colonel Georg Klein for calling in the September 4 strike on two hijacked oil tankers that inflamed the debate about NATO bombings and the battle for Afghan hearts and minds.

Clearly stressed and tight-lipped, Klein understandably does not want to discuss the incident. "There are investigations under way, by NATO and by the German judiciary," he told AFP.

An Afghan government report described the attack as a mistake and said it killed 30 civilians as well as 69 Taliban fighters. German allies criticised the strike and NATO acknowledged civilians were among the dead.

Klein’s mission, which ends in several weeks, has been fraught. Four soldiers died, dozens were wounded, rockets rain down on his base in northern province Kunduz and now he fears the air strike could be his undoing.

"The situation is still very bad," he said, referring to the increased scope and sophistication of attacks in once relatively peaceful Kunduz, which now straddles a new international military supply line from Tajikistan.

One of his officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, tried to explain that the oil tankers, which were in Taliban hands six kilometres (four miles) from the base, could have been used as mobile bombs.

"The Taliban rounded up villagers so they could use their tractors to haul one of the tankers out of the river," he said.

NATO officials reportedly accused Klein of giving false information to the alliance when he ordered the air strike.

Afghan witnesses at the time said the Taliban invited villagers — Robin Hood-style — to siphon off free fuel in order to lighten the tankers.

Colonel Ulrich P is responsible for training Afghan forces to one day replace NATO troops. The German army bans most troops in theatre from divulging their full names for security reasons.

He said the strike followed "new rules of engagement" issued by Berlin in June that were less restrictive than in the past. "The Taliban killed people (the drivers of the tankers), it was necessary to respond," he said.

But the incident could not have come at a worse time for Germany whose citizens are increasingly hostile to the Afghan mission and whose US allies want to limit indiscriminate bombing raids to win the confidence of the Afghan people.

Nearly nine years into the war, Afghanistan has been flung into political crisis after an August election, the results of which are still unknown because of investigations into fraud largely in favour of President Hamid Karzai.

Influential former chancellor Helmut Schmidt blasted Germany’s "ever blurrier target" in Afghanistan and said the original aim of depriving Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda of an operational base had failed miserably.

The unpopular Afghan mission has been an issue in parliamentary elections in Germany on Sunday and one which Al-Qaeda has sought to exploit.

The terror network threatened to attack Germany after the elections unless they vote out Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is widely expected to clinch a second term in office, and withdraw the 4,200 troops the German government says are deployed in Afghanistan.

All of Germany’s main parties with the exception of the far-left Die Linke support the mission, which has cost the lives of 35 German soldiers, but calls for a timetable for withdrawal have grown louder during the election campaign.

Germany has stepped up security across the country but at the Kunduz base in Afghanistan, everyone is braced for violence — before or after the election.

"According to our information, orders have come from Pakistan to step up attacks," said Lieutenant Colonel Mickael Weckbach at the large German base in Mazar-i-Sharif in reference to militant commanders across the border.

"The insurgents want to force us to make plans to withdraw," said Captain Thomas K, whose infantry company is often on the frontline in Kunduz.

"The coming six weeks will still be very tense, up to winter," he said.

Marc Bastian/AFP/Expatica