The accidental victims | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 20.03.2013
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The accidental victims

Relatives of the victims of a fatal German-ordered airstrike in 2009 near Kunduz in Afghanistan are taking Germany to court. The controversial attack killed many civilians. A chronology of events:

Midnight was long gone by the time 25-year-old Qudratullah and his 14-year-old brother, Rahmatullah, reached the tanker trucks on the Kunduz River. They met many people returning from the river, carrying full canisters. The news had spread like a wildfire: there is free gasoline - fuel that is usually expensive and often not even available outside the cities.

Whether the boys wanted to surprise their father with gas for the family generator, whether they were hoping for praise - Abdul Dayan will never find out. At 1:49 a.m., ISAF allies bombed the banks of the river, turning it into a blazing sea of flames. That night, Abdul Dayan's sons died along with more than 100 other people; according to Amnesty International, more than 80 of the victims were civilians.

Abdul Daian, Foto: Marcel Mettelsiefen

Abdul Dayan, a bereaved father

The attack was aimed at the local Taliban who had kidnapped two tankers near Kunduz the day before. The commander of the German military stationed there ordered the bombing, and it was executed by two allied American fighter jets. The German military leadership on the ground justified the attack: "These people are an immediate threat. These insurgents want to seize the gas in the tanker trucks, regroup and, according to our intelligence findings, presumably attack our compound in Kunduz," an ISAF report states.

Immediately after the bombing, there was suspicion that the German side made a grave mistake - a mistake that was to have political consequences.

Proper procedure?

In the afternoon hours of September 3, 2009, Taliban militants seized the opportunity when one of two tanker trucks transporting 30.000 liters of diesel and the same amount of gasoline had a flat tire. They kidnapped both trucks. But the insurgents did not get far: the trucks got stuck on a sandbar near the river about four kilometers down the road. When all efforts to tow the trucks failed, the kidnappers began to siphon off the fuel, apparently allowing civilians to help themselves, too.

people inspect the burned out trucks (Archivfoto vom 04.09.2009).

Burned-out wreckage after the bombing

News of the kidnapped tanker trucks reached the German military base and its commander Colonel Georg Klein in Kunduz at about 9 p.m. About five hours later, Klein ordered the attack. But who knew what when, and whether German mission control acted responsibly, was long a matter of debate. An investigation launched by US General and then-ISAF Commander Stanley McChrystal contributed significantly to shedding light on the incident.

Errors of judgment

According to McChrystal's report, Colonel Klein based his decisions almost solely on information he received over the telephone from an Afghan informant. That evidence should have made him think twice: according to McChrystal's report, the man called every 15 to 20 minutes, hinting at the Taliban stealing gasoline. It was odd that in every single conversation, the informant claimed no civilians from the nearby villages were in the area. Klein decided to forego any attempts at obtaining further information, despite repeated offers by the US fighter jet pilots to fly over the area of attack and check out the situation.

Colonel Georg Klein, (ddp images/AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

Today, Georg Klein is a general in the Bundeswehr

Klein notified the American allies of "contact with the enemy" and "imminent danger" for their own troops on the ground - a legal requirement for the use of fighter jets.

At 1:49 a.m., the jets dropped two 500-pound GBU-38 bombs that exploded in the immediate vicinity of the tanker trucks. Hours after the attack, Klein reported to the German headquarters in Masar-i-Sharif and the Joint Operations Command in the German city of Potsdam: 56 insurgents killed, 14 militants fled, no civilian casualties.

It took weeks, even months, for the German public to learn the full extent of the night-time operation.

On September 11, former Bundeswehr Chief of Staff Wolfgang Schneiderhan referred to the bombing as "the result of a careful evaluation of the situation." By then, there were increasing misgivings around the world about the German action. An Afghan inquiry called the attack "a mistake" - and reported the death of 30 civilians and 69 Taliban insurgents. The German Defense Ministry, however, insisted the mission was "necessary from a military point of view."

white-clad men in turbans surrounded shrouded figure on ground. (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Mourning the dead in Kunduz

New information was leaked in November while, increasingly, the appropriateness of the attack was questioned. October had seen a change in Chancellor Merkel's new cabinet in Berlin: Franz Josef Jung, previously the Defense Minister, took over the labor portfolio while Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg took over the Defense Ministry.

Political consequences

Guttenberg took drastic action: on November 26, he dismissed the Bundeswehr's chief of staff. One day later, Franz Josef Jung announced his resignation. A complete political about-face followed in early December, when Guttenberg told deputies in Germany's Bundestag, the lower house of parliament: the bombing was "not appropriate from a military point of view."

A Defense Committee investigated the incident for two years, hearing more than 40 witnesses, going through more than 300 files, submitting a more than 550-page report by late October 2011. The conclusion: the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and Liberals (FDP) rated the airstrike as in accordance with international law, while the opposition Greens and Left Party assessed it as excessive, and thus clearly in violation of international law; the Social Democrats stated a violation of international law was at least "not verifiable."

To this very day, the debate has not been legally laid to rest. As early as November 2009, four German lawyers demanded compensation pay from the Defense Ministry for 79 relatives of the victims of the attack. The first of a series of court trials begins at the Bonn District Court on Wednesday, (20.03.2013): in ten class-action lawsuits, the victims' families demand 3.3 million euros ($4.24 million) in additional compensation.

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