The German public has reacted with surprise to headlines that the Bundeswehr passed on so-called "kill lists" of Afghan "terrorists" to the US. Admitting the truth can be painful at times, says Kersten Knipp.
Some revelations are uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that one would rather ignore them.
One such revelation is the news that, within the framework of the international mission in Afghanistan, both Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, and the German foreign intelligence agency (BND) were among those who contributed to the "Joint Prioritized Effects Lists" (JPEL) - by compiling lists of names of people to be put under surveillance, detained or even killed. The German tabloid Bild calls has dubbed these "kill lists."
The public's surprised reaction only goes to show that even in a highly modern information society, some bits and pieces are easy to "miss." The existence of these lists became public in September 2010. In the document titled "Printed Matter 17/2884," dated September 8, 2010, the German federal government defined how, in its view, the people on the lists were to be treated. They were to be detained. The document also says, however, that the lists could possibly be used to define "potential military targets."
To put it plainly, that means that the people on the lists could become military targets and be killed as a result.
The German government, for its part, did not specifically approve of targeted killings, but it didn't rule them out either; the Bundeswehr passed on its list to other NATO allies.
And the paper made it clear by using the choice of words "military targets" that it was obvious what could happen; the US has always been open about its strategy of targeted killings.
'Good guys,' dirty hands
The existence of those lists highlights one thing in particular: in war, sides are not as clear cut as one might like. The "good guys" can get their hands dirty, too. Legal standards, as stipulated, for example in international humanitarian law, cannot be always be upheld in times of war - at least, not as they should be.
This is not only for military reasons, but also - and primarily - for legal ones: Even a complex set of regulations such as international humanitarian law, is, to a large extent, open to interpretation.
When exactly does the right to self-defense apply, which would legitimize targeted killings? Where does one draw the line for "anticipatory" or "preemptive" self-defense? In other words, when is it permissible to attack an enemy preemptively in order to prevent an attack, thus defending oneself, and when is it illegal?
There are other questions that have yet to be fully answered: What exactly is a "combatant" and what defines a "terrorist"? How much "collateral damage" (or in non-military terms: innocent civilians killed in the course of an attack) is allowed? Does the killing of a dangerous opponent justify the death of innocents at all, and, if so, how many?
Legal and ethical abyss
These questions alone lead into a legal and ethical abyss, as well as to rather dissimilar assessments on the ground: Afghan civilians surely have different ideas on these matters than members of the military, who, for the most part, sitting in offices thousands of miles away, steer drones to enemy houses or hideouts, targeting suspected terrorists who may or may not even be at that location.
The question whether or not the information behind an attack is reliable is of critical importance, especially when it comes to deciding whether a strike is justifiable. There have been many strikes that have killed a lot of people - just not the person intended, as the targeted person was not where he was expected to be. A simple "Sorry!" does not suffice here. The value of a human life rules supreme. In Afghanistan as well.
Even so, international law can only protect human life to a certain extent. While the spirit of international law is unambiguous, its paragraphs continue to remain subject to various interpretations. That includes very generous ones, which blur the lines between the "good" and the "bad." A clean war can thus quickly become dirty, even for the Bundeswehr. By now, at least, Germans will have got wind of that.