September 08, 2009

Outrage in Germany, Resignation in Kunduz

Today's Washington Post has a fascinating pair of articles on the Kunduz bombing. The first details the way in which the Kunduz bombing has been received in Germany, while the second details how it has been received in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan:

This time, according to human rights activists and foreign diplomats, rising Afghan anger toward the Taliban in the once-tranquil north, a swift public apology by U.S. military officials and national preoccupation with a troubled presidential election have combined to deflect popular outrage over the bombing.


"There has been a marked difference in the way the U.S. military dealt with this incident. Instead of arguing about the number of casualties, as has happened often in the past, they recognized the Afghan perception and addressed it," said a senior U.N. official here. "This is very heartening, and it bodes well for the coming months as this conflict inevitably continues."


Within 24 hours, the senior U.S. military commander here, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, visited the site of the bombed trucks in Kunduz province and then delivered a personal message on Afghan television, expressing his concern and promising a full investigation.


"Just showing his face helped a lot," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

In Germany, by contrast:

Regardless of whether most of those killed in the bombing were civilians or Taliban fighters, there was genuine shock among many Germans that one of their military commanders could have been responsible for an attack that killed so many people.


About 4,200 German troops are stationed in Afghanistan, the third-largest foreign contingent, after the those of the United States and Britain. But the German troops are generally restricted from engaging in combat operations and concentrate instead on civilian reconstruction programs.


The government approved sending troops to Afghanistan as part of a peacekeeping operation but officially says it is not involved in a war. The German constitution, adopted after the defeat of the Nazis, prohibits the country from going to war unless it or one of its allies is directly attacked by another state.


"In Afghanistan it is like a war, but for us it is not a war," said Walter Kolbow, a Social Democrat and longtime member of the defense committee in the German Parliament. "It is an important distinction."

I had breakfast with the German scholar Thomas Rid yesterday, and since I am too ignorant to speak the language of Goethe, he was telling me all about how the Kunduz bombing is dominating the German media at the moment and how it is being received. A few military professionals and governmental officials are upset with General McChrystal and the way in which he allowed reporters -- most notably Rajiv Chandrasekaran -- to travel with him as he investigated what happened. (These officials perhaps fail to see how the commander's openness with the media and readiness to accept responsibility -- while arriving at the expense of German pride, perhaps -- is in part responsible for the way in which the bombing has been received in Afghanistan.) But most Germans, Thomas was telling me, are simply livid at the defense ministry, which, among other things, failed to update its statement on the website for three days

Jung, the German defense minister, on Sunday called the bombing "absolutely necessary," saying his officers had "very detailed information" indicating that the Taliban planned to use the hijacked fuel tankers to attack a German outpost in Kunduz. He also said that "only Taliban terrorists" were killed, though he backtracked a day later and said civilians were among the dead.


Markus Kaim, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that many legislators already distrusted Jung and that his shifting explanations had only worsened his standing.


"Some members of Parliament would like to kill Franz Josef Jung," he said. "He's more or less lying to the German Parliament and the German public."

That's all fine and good. But this is absurd:

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Potsdam said they were considering whether to open a homicide investigation into the decision by a German military commander to order the airstrike by a U.S. fighter jet, which blew up two hijacked fuel trucks and a crowd of bystanders early Friday in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.

I guess this is slightly more logical if you don't think your forces are even at war, but still. Meanwhile, the reader comment of the (extended) weekend belongs to "turan saheb":

when you talk about "the Germans" or "Germany", don't forget the differences which exist between different groups involved (also with lots of simplifications of cause)


- our general public is highly pacifistic and doesn't want to see anyone harmed by Germans ever again (and probably to a lesser degree our soldiers to be killed)


- our politicians found it a wonderful idea "to demonstrate commitment and solidarity" and deployed the Bundeswehr - with little more than the idea that Srebrenica (and of cause Auschwitz) had proven you must never turn away from bad things going on and the hope, that the military will figure out a strategy when in theater


- our senior ranks are even more still stuck in the Balkan. They still somehow expect that the situation will improve, if only we can stay on in our bases long enough. Of cause in this world-view, taking risks to own troops doesn't pay out (as does serious Intel-gathering). Losing soldiers in combat is the best way to ruin your career. Improving the PRT however (protection measures as well as troop welfare or beautification or at least environmental protection measures ) DOES pay out, for you can easily impress any visitor and even send photos to your superiors.


- as a personal experience, many young officers who actually served OUTSIDE the camps find such a gap between what they experienced and what the FOBbits believe, that they see little appeal in staying in the army after their initial contract expires. That is to say we DO go out at night (in Badakhshan for example you can not reach, let alone operate in many areas in less than a couple of days); we HAVE some combat-experience and at least some of us wish to ACHIEVE something when we put ourselves and our soldiers at risk. However, the general idea "up there" is still, that our presence will improve the situation, not our actions. in the absence of "strategy top-down; operations bottom-up" we do some "no strategy; operations top-down" which mostly amounts to "cover is more important than impact".


What I want to point out - although after several tours, I personnally feel some pain confessing it: I guess that if our approach doesn't change (perhaps after the elections) for the overall mission it would make a minor difference if Germany would leave. However, there is also room for improvement, German forces and junior leaders mostly want to achieve something and I am pretty sure they could (...and they do night-patrols...). I just cannot figure out how the higher echelons could be brought to a point where they would let their troops do their jobs without force protection measures interfering (but I have deepest sympathy for Gen McChrystals handling of this case if his intent was to build up pressure). I guess I too have to follow our tried & tested Afghanistan-Strategy in this case: Smile and Hope (and Wave).