The German government is struggling to contain a scandal over its handling of a deadly air strike called in by a German officer in Afghanistan in September. In particular, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Defense Minister Karl-Theoder zu Guttenberg are coming under fire for the way they handled information about the strike.
Both are to be called as witnesses to face a parliamentary inquiry into the air strike in January just as they prepare for an Afghanistan conference in London later that month, where Berlin is likely to face pressure to commit more troops to the NATO mission. The country’s involvement in the conflict is highly unpopular at home.
The enquiry, which was set up on Wednesday, is expected to continue for a year. And just as it was getting down to work, it emerged that Guttenberg has been accused of lying by the top general he fired in connection with the crisis. It is the latest in a series of blows to the credibility of the government over its handling of the Sept. 4 air strike which killed as many as 142 people, including many civilians.
Aiming to Kill
Colonel Georg Klein called in the attack by US fighter jets after two fuel tankers were hijacked by the Taliban and had become stuck in a sand bank in the Kunduz River, just kilometers from a Bundeswehr camp. It has since emerged that Klein’s aim was to kill the insurgents as well as destroy the tankers to prevent them from being used as “rolling bombs.” The enquiry will probe whether this was justified under the terms of the parliamentary mandate that governs Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Guttenberg’s predecessor Franz Josef Jung had initially stated that only Taliban fighters were killed in the air strike. One of the issues the enquiry will deal with is when exactly the government knew that civilians had also been killed.
Last month Guttenberg fired both General Wolfgang Schneiderhan and a senior Defense Ministry official Peter Wichert on Nov. 25, on the grounds that they had kept vital information from him concerning the air strike.
According to Guttenberg, he had not been given reports from the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan that indicated that there had been civilian casualties as a result of the attack. Jung, who had been shifted to the Labor Ministry after the recent election, resigned from government after he admitted that he had not read the Bundeswehr reports before passing them on to NATO.
‘Not Telling the Truth’
Guttenberg initially described the air strike as “military appropriate” but has since changed his assessment to ” inappropriate.” The defense minister is to be the first witness called by a parliamentary enquiry. In particular the committee will want to know why he changed his assessment of the air strike after seeing the Bundeswehr report, particularly given that many of the details casting doubt on the appropriateness of the attack can be found in the NATO report, which Guttenberg did have access to at the time of his original assessment.
Over the weekend Schneiderhan publicly stated that he and the minister differed in their versions of the circumstances surrounding his dismissal in November. On Wednesday he went even further. In remarks to the weekly Die Zeit he said that Guttenberg was “not telling the truth” about the day he and Wichert were fired. Schneiderhan said that Guttenberg’s insistence that he had withheld documents is “an attack on my honor.”
Rainer Arnold, the Social Democrat defense expert, who sits on the committee, said the opposition will want to clarify if Guttenberg was right to fire Schneiderhan and Wichert.
How Much Did the Chancellor Know?
Chancellor Merkel will also be called as a witness. For months she managed to avoid being contaminated by the scandal. But questions are now being raised about how much the chancellor herself knew.
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Defense Ministry did not hand over the NATO report from Afghanistan until Sept. 10 even though Merkel made a statement to parliament about the affair on Sept. 8.
While the Chancellery is reported to have complained about the fact that it had not been given enough information about the air strike, the inquiry will also likely probe how much of an effort Merkel made to know the full facts while she was in the midst of her re-election campaign.
Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International: