Global Policy Forum

Merkel Warns of ‘Premature Judgments’ of Afghan Raid



By Nicholas Kulish

September 8, 2009


Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, pushed back Tuesday against international criticism over an airstrike ordered by German troops that claimed the lives of scores of people in northern Afghanistan, even as NATO announced that it appeared that civilians had been among those killed.

In Parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel took issue on Tuesday with criticism of Germany's role in an airstrike in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Merkel addressed Parliament in the face of growing scrutiny of the decision by a German commander to have American aircraft bomb two gas tanker trucks hijacked by the Taliban, in what could potentially be a contradiction to new rules intended to reduce civilian casualties.

While she "deeply regrets" any innocent victims, Mrs. Merkel said, she will not accept "premature judgments" about the airstrike.
"After what I have experienced during the last few days, I say this quite clearly: I refuse to tolerate this, regardless from whom - both at home and abroad," she said.

NATO announced Tuesday that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, had appointed a Canadian, Maj. Gen. C. S. Sullivan, to lead the formal investigation into the airstrike, which took place early Friday. According to a NATO statement, a United States Air Force officer and a German officer will be part of the investigating team. NATO officials expect the investigation to take several weeks.

According to the statement, reviews of the strike indicated "that along with insurgents, civilians also were killed and injured in the strike."
There have been conflicting reports about the number of victims and whether they were Taliban fighters or civilians. An independent Afghan watchdog group, Afghan Rights Monitor, said Monday that 60 to 70 villagers had been killed in the strike. But some local Afghan officials have said that most of the dead were fighters.

The swift burial of victims at the scene of the airstrike, near the city of Kunduz, and the fact that German troops did not inspect the location until hours after the bombing have added to the confusion. The bombing took place amid rising fatigue and disenchantment in Germany with the mission in Afghanistan, as the number and intensity of Taliban attacks have increased and more reports of voter fraud in the recent Afghan presidential election have come to light.

It remains to be seen whether the attack, and the rift it has caused between German and American military leaders, could prove to be a turning point in the way the allies cooperate - or whether these developments could encourage an earlier withdrawal by Germany, which at times has seemed a reluctant participant. The United States is increasing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 68,000, compared with a combined total of about 40,000 troops from other countries fighting in the NATO-led mission. Germany has roughly 4,200 troops there.

On Sunday at a news conference in Berlin, Mrs. Merkel and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain called for an international conference to work on a plan for shifting responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the Afghan government, a proposal that they said France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, also supported.

The timing of the airstrike - just before parliamentary elections in Germany on Sept. 27 - has raised the stakes for politicians like Mrs. Merkel who have backed the unpopular mission. Polls show that roughly two-thirds of Germans oppose the presence of the country's troops in Afghanistan. But Mrs. Merkel's main rivals have been handcuffed by the role of their left-leaning government under the previous chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, in sending troops to Afghanistan in the first place.

In the past, NATO allies engaged in the more dangerous south complained that the Germans refused to fight. But in recent months, the relatively peaceful northern part of Afghanistan has been the scene of increased Taliban attacks. Speaking in the Reichstag building on Tuesday morning, Mrs. Merkel told Parliament that "every innocent person killed in Afghanistan is one too many" and called for a "complete review" of the strike. But she took issue with the rapid criticism aimed at the German military in Afghanistan and at the government in Berlin.

The bombing is a particularly delicate issue because it is the deadliest episode involving German troops since World War II. In a news conference on Monday, a Defense Ministry spokesman drew attention to the fact that the German commander on the ground ordered the warplanes to use 500-pound bombs rather than the 2,000-pound bombs suggested by the pilots.

Domestically, disapproval of the airstrike has focused on the defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, particularly for his assertions in the days after the strike that only Taliban fighters had been killed. "Your policy has been cover up, deny, and when nothing else works, apologize for that which you previously disputed," Jürgen Trittin, leader of the Green Party delegation in Parliament, said during the debate after Mrs. Merkel's statement.

Despite its extreme unpopularity, the war in Afghanistan has yet to become a major election issue. That stems from the fact that the mission began during the previous government, a coalition of the left-leaning Social Democrats and the Green Party. The Social Democrats are now the junior party in a coalition with Mrs. Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister and Mrs. Merkel's Social Democratic challenger in the election, struck many of the same notes as his political rival on Tuesday. "There is one thing I do not understand, that before the investigation is complete premature judgments are being made, also abroad," Mr. Steinmeier said in the last scheduled session of Parliament before the election. He also spoke out against a quick withdrawal. "We cannot rashly depart," he said. "That just won't work. It would be irresponsible."


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