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Germany

Calls grow for more transparency on Afghanistan after major leak

After whistle-blowing website Wikileaks published thousands of classified documents on Afghanistan, the German opposition is asking why it didn't learn of the information in parliament first.

News Magazine Der Spiegel with its cover story Task Force 373

Covert ops in Afghanistan are dominating the German news

Opposition members from Germany's Green Party on Tuesday turned their attention to a new aspect of the thousands of leaked documents on the Afghan conflict released by the whistle-blowing 'Wikileaks' online portal.

The presence of a US special forces unit called Task Force 373 in the north of Afghanistan might be common knowledge in security circles, but the opposition say that they had had no idea what those troops were doing, until now. This, despite the fact that Germany heads the regional command for the area.

"We kept hearing that the US had special forces in the north, that's nothing new," said Greens defense spokesman Omid Nouripour in an interview on German public radio.

"But it was news to me that there were documents clearly describing what these troops have been doing. And they were NATO-access documents, which means the government must have known what they were doing too. The problem is that they never told us."

Omid Nouripour

Nouripour says he shouldn't learn about covert ops online

Nouripour speculates that either the government overlooked the pertinent data, or knew about it and decided to withhold it from the opposition, and says they look bad in either scenario. Yet the government says it is being transparent with sensitive information.

"We pass on everything we know to the opposition, or rather to all the relevant parties at government security meetings," Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said in an interview on public television. "But these things are kept largely secret for a good reason. Often it's for the safety of our own people in the field. All I can advise is that people try to stay awake and listen attentively in these meetings."

'Capture and kill'

Task Force 373's roughly 300 operatives based at the German Masar-i-Sharif military camp carry out clandestine missions targeting high-profile Taliban leaders in the region. The information published on Wikileaks suggests they are aggressive operations that even take into account the possibility of civilian casualties.

Often termed "capture and kill" missions, they don't really fit well with Germany's non-aggressive post-war military policy.

A funeral procession for a Bundeswehr soldier killed in Afghanistan

Germany is the third-largest contributor to the ISAF mission

"I have seen some files, where it wasn't really a 'capture and kill' mission, it was just a 'kill' mission," Nouripour of the Greens said, referring to the information he had read on Wikileaks. "The sole objective was to neutralize the target. If that's true, then we are in a complicated legal grey area, to put it mildly."

Ever since World War II, the German army - the Bundeswehr - has pledged to only operate abroad as part of a peacekeeping or rebuilding mission, or in self-defense. Given the country's history, taking part in aggressive warfare is strictly forbidden. Also, Bundeswehr soldiers are potentially liable in civilian courts for orders they carry out at the behest of their superiors, unlike in most militaries around the world.

Task Force 373 does not report directly to ISAF's German commanding officer in the north of Afghanistan, taking their orders directly from the US instead. But the unit's mere presence in a primarily German-run area of the country - and the activities it carries out - might be enough to call the peacekeeping nature of the German mission into question.

"It's also long been common knowledge (in Berlin) that Task Force 373 pursues particular types of missions," Defense Minister Guttenberg said. "The German Bundeswehr's area of responsibility is clearly demarcated from these activities. We also regularly inform the opposition about this issue."

Afghan albatross

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

Guttenberg served as a soldier, and describes the Afghan mission as a "war"

The long, increasingly bloody German mission in Afghanistan is becoming more and more of a liability for the government. While the main opposition Social Democrat and Green parties - who were ruling in coalition when Germany joined the mission - tend to tone down criticism of an operation they also endorsed, the Bundeswehr presence in Afghanistan is extremely unpopular among the electorate.

The Wikileaks allegations of a poorly prepared, under-equipped German military, and of ever more aggressive counter-insurgency measures taking place on German-patrolled soil are the last thing Chancellor Angela Merkel's government needs as it tries to sell the mission as unpleasant, but necessary for the country's long-term security.

Defense Minister Guttenberg caused quite a stir when he took office last year by openly talking about the Afghan mission as a "war," saying troops were in too much danger for the German peace-time military code to be truly applicable.

"All of us have been in positions of responsibility for some time, and probably haven't always addressed the reality of the situation," Guttenberg said on Tuesday, arguing that most German politicians didn't want to accept the nature of the Taliban insurgency.

"For whatever reasons, we all wanted to sugar the Afghan pill a little. And that had to change. For this reason, many things in the media reports don't really surprise me, but we'll have to wait and soberly analyze exactly what is lurking in the 90,000 pages of information."

Guttenberg also said that it was impossible to ascertain whether the leaks posed a security threat before a more thorough analysis. Wikileaks says the information published is all at least seven months old, and therefore should not affect the current security landscape.

Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Rob Turner

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