Afghanistan scandal shakes Berlin

BERLIN — Like the peaks of the Hindu Kush dominating much of Afghanistan, the war in that unhappy country increasingly overshadows the political scenery in Germany. Parallels with the situation in the United States are unmistakable.   

On Dec. 3 the Bundestag voted on prolonging the use of German troops in Afghanistan for another year. But before the delegates crowded to the front of the house to put their ballots in the container, they were surprised to hear an unusual statement. It came close to a confession.

For three months one event has repeatedly grabbed the headlines: the bombing on Sept. 4 of two hijacked German fuel trucks in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. The air attack, ordered by a German colonel, resulted in the deaths of 142 people, including women, children and many other civilians despite the fact that the trucks, stuck in the mud while crossing a river, were of no immediate danger to German troops. American pilots suggested flying low over them to frighten civilians and the Taliban hijackers away. But no, the colonel insisted on bombs – and got them. The fuel caused a terrible explosion.

Army spokespersons, including Franz Josef Jung, minister of Defense, tried to belittle the matter and denied any certainty about even a few civilian casualties. This was a crucial matter; it was the first such case involving German troops in Afghanistan and the worst bloodshed caused by Germans in uniform since World War II.

As more and more facts and videos leaked out about the horror in Kunduz and the cover-up, both the army inspector-general and a deputy minister were forced to resign. The minister of Defense kept denying any knowledge of the full facts but began to look paler and paler in public, even though Angela Merkel had demoted him to a lesser and less vulnerable job as Minister of Labor. But this switch could not save him; he had obviously lied in covering up the atrocity and, still pouting defiantly, he too was thrown to the wolves.

One aspect became embarrassingly obvious: the bombing and the early attempts to downplay it were in September, only weeks before the national Bundestag elections on Sept. 27. All parties represented in the Bundestag had supported military action in Afghanistan with a single exception, The Left, the common foe of all the others. It had opposed sending troops and AWAC planes from the start, insisting that the action was not really helping the Afghans or gaining increasing security in the world, but was rather a way to strengthen German military involvement abroad and expand influence generally.  

Since 60 to 70 percent of the German public was also opposed to military involvement the four older parties agreed tacitly to avoid the whole subject during the election campaign. Of course The Left took every chance to raise what it saw as a key issue. However, as usual it was largely excluded from a fair hearing in the mass media. But then along came this brutal affair which threatened to upset the whole apple-cart and the relative silence was greatly disturbed.

It is hard to say what direct influence this had on the outcome, but both of the two main war advocates, the Christian Democrats and, to a far greater extent the Social Democrats, lost millions of voters, while The Left jumped to 12 percent (more exactly, 11.9 %), higher than ever before.

Now, three months later, this issue still haunts the political scene. During a discussion of the bombing in November the new defense minister, the elegant Bavarian noble Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, told the Bundestag that the Kunduz bombing had after all been “an appropriate action,” thus justifying the killing. But on Dec. 3, after more of the truth had emerged and pressures from many sides increased, and just before the vote on extending the mission, Herr zu Guttenberg suddenly decided to change his policy and make a confession: in truth, he announced, the bombing had been “militarily inappropriate” after all. He had simply not known all the facts when he made the first statement, he explained.

But then, thanks to the International Red Cross, it was found that a full report on the tragic results had been placed on his desk prior to his earlier statement; he must have known the facts and he must have been lying. The position of this elegant politician, who some viewed as a candidate to follow Merkel, began to teeter. Worse yet, some heretic voices raised another awful question: how early did Angela Merkel know the facts about Kunduz and keep her silence? An all-party committee will now investigate the case. Will the result be a whitewash? Perhaps luckily for her, Frau Merkel is now off in Copenhagen trying to defend her reputation as a heroine in the fight against global warming. She will probably weather both storms, but may get a bit battered in the process.

Soon after the defense minister made his confession, the vote was taken on extending the stay of the 4,500 German soldiers in Afghanistan for another year. During the debate the Greens and the Social Democrats, now in the opposition, lustily joined in attacking Herr zu Guttenberg, Frau Merkel and the army brass, pounding the lectern in righteous indignation about their violation of the truth. They had to choose their angry words carefully, however, since both parties had supported the war from the start. It had been Social Democratic Defense Minister Struck, who declared in late 2001 that “Germany’s security is being defended in the Hindu Kusch mountains.” But words are cheap, and the time came to make a decision.

Of course, the two government parties voted en masse to prolong the mission; only three of the “Christians” and two of the Free Democrats had the guts to vote no. Eleven Social Democrats were opposed but the majority, 121, voted to keep sending troops. The Greens were again split, reflecting pressures from their grass roots membership: eight voted to continue the mission, 19 voted against it, 40 sat firmly on the fence by abstaining. Of course all of the 70 delegates from The Left, reflecting the wishes of most people in Germany, voted no.  

Thus, the government got its majority vote, and German soldiers will continue to fight, kill and also die in dusty north Afghanistan. In January it and other NATO members will decide whether to comply with the wishes of Nobel-prize President Obama and increase their contingents. More details in the Kunduz scandal may also be expected; it seems that the elite, super-secret German commando force was involved – or perhaps responsible for the Kunduz disaster. And more heads could roll before this scandal is replaced by some new one.

I recall the giant meeting with Obama in Berlin during his election campaign. His eloquent speech received plenty of applause – though some things he said were received more thoughtfully, if not coolly. Near where I stood, high up on a lantern, unnoticed by the police and certainly by the great orator far to the front, and in defiance of a ban on posters or banners, there was a sign saying “No Troops for Afghanistan.” It looked a bit lonely at the time. The movement to find better solutions for that war-torn land has grown since then, but needs to grow a lot faster.