Friday, April 9, 2010

German special forces killed 83 Afghan civilians

We saw recently that the German army is, despite its government's claims to the contrary, knee-deep in an unpopular war. Today we will explore the event which for many Germans has proven to be the straw that broke the camel's back, an incident known to many as the Kunduz massacre.

Readers may recall Labour Day weekend this past year, when a German-ordered airstrike by US jets blew up two fuel tankers stranded on a riverbed which had reportedly been stolen from foreign forces. Almost immediately, it was widely reported that the number of insurgents and civilians killed in the inferno was at least fifty and was perhaps 90 or more. Also, despite vague details, the Afghan health ministry reported that "a big number of civilians were killed and wounded" in the September 4 bombing. (You can see the rather disturbing drone's-eye-view video of the strike here.)

Despite such early developments, Canada's major newspapers, in concert with the mainstream English language media worldwide, tended to favor the lowest available estimates of the strike's human toll. Even as firmer and more authoritative tallies emerged which supported higher estimates of casualties, the Canadian media generally lowered its reported tallies. The facts of the matter are still unreported in the Canadian press, and the same is true of the United States.

Early Canadian coverage following Sept 4, generally drawn from wire services, cited figures as high as more than 45 civilians dead out of 90 killed in total. By September 14, however, most major Canadian dailies had settled on the figure of 30 (sometimes 30-40) dead civilians.

Only one Canadian newspaper (The Province, Sept 8) carried an AFP report which cited Afghanistan Rights Monitor's tally of 60-70 civilians deaths based on the organization's interviews with 15 residents of Omar Khel village, where the attack occurred. **

The same day as the article the Province, the National Post ignored the ARM tally and instead poured scorn on the United Nations for something that body had not even done yet. According to the Post's editorial board UN condemnation of the Kunduz bombing was "inevitable" following the Taliban's "call for a UN investigation." By this depraved act the Taliban resemble "the Islamists who attack Israel" in their cynical use of the UN, which "never seems able to see through the schemes and plots of extremists and dictators," the editorial warns.

Characteristically, the National Post's sermon is deeply flawed owing to its peripheral relation to the facts. In reality, the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) had already been investigating for several days, prompted not by insurgents but by the seriousness of the incident. Contrary to the Post's claims, the Taliban had called not for an investigation but for the bombing to be condemned and steps taken to prevent a recurrence.

On September 14, most of Canada's major dailies (National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Vancouver Sun) ran notices relating the results of an Afghan government appointed commission which found that 30 civilians had been killed in Kunduz. However, almost all Canadian media completely ignored a crucial part of the commission's findings. Only the Edmonton Journal (Sept 18) found reason to include the commission's condemnation of the attack. Of course, Afghanistan being something of a vassal state, the condemnation is very mildly worded, saying simply that NATO's decision to launch the airstrike was "the wrong decision".

Quite oddly, Canada's leading daily, the Globe and Mail, did not even mention the Sept 4 air strike until September 9 when a Canadian general serving with NATO command was appointed to investigate the incident. Regarding civilian deaths, the article notes that estimates of civilians killed ranged from "less than 10 to more than 80." They appear not to have followed up on the story.

That the leading media outlets were not more vigorous in their questioning might strike some as odd, given NATO's initially clumsy public relations. " NATO initially said it believed the casualties were all Taliban fighters," wrote one Reuters correspondent, "but later acknowledged that large numbers of wounded civilians were being treated in hospitals."

It seems that the Afghan government appointed commission was not the last word on the matter. Amnesty International, after visiting the site of the bombing and speaking with locals, came out with a report in late October:

Amnesty international’s investigation into the Kunduz incident suggests that the laws of war may have been violated during the airstrike...

According to the German military, NATO’s investigation could not verify the exact number of casualties. Village elders from the area told Amnesty International in Kunduz that 142 people had been killed in the attack, of which at least 83 were civilians...

Amnesty International gathered eyewitness testimonies from survivors of the attack, as well as interviews with Mohammed Razaq Yaqoobi, the local chief of police, UN officials, and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission...

The organisation’s research shows that NATO did not provide civilians in the area with effective warning that they were going to launch an attack, endangering the lives of people in the area.

In some circumstances, NATO aircraft in Afghanistan fly close to targets or shoot warning rounds to get civilians away from a potential target. Eyewitnesses to the attack told Amnesty International that they did not see NATO aircraft engage in any warning action prior to the Kunduz airstrike... (link)
But even Amnesty's figure of 83 dead civilians was not the end of the story. In November a report in Der Spiegel (not translated into English) related the story of an independent investigation which concluded that only a handful of Taliban insurgents were killed

German lawyer Karim Popal, himself born in Afghanistan, claimed to represent 78 relatives of victims of the strike in a compensation suit against the German government. Popal had traveled to Kunduz in the weeks after the bombing and met with family members of victims of the bombing.

According to Popal's investigations, the attack killed just five Taliban while claiming the lives of 139 civilians, including 36 children and 20 women. Some 163 children were orphaned. There were 20 wounded civilians as well as 20 missing civilians. Assuming that those 'missing' were most likely dead, Popal's figures imply that 159 civilians were killed.

However, a month or so after this turn of events, Popal's claims were seriously questioned. At least one Afghan whose relatives were killed in the Kunduz bombing distanced themselves from Popal, while a lawyer colleague claimed that Popal had not personally met with all victims' family members as he had claimed. German news magazine Report Mainz cites Amnesty International Germany's Monika Lüke dismissing Popal's figure and calling his allegedly inflated tally an attempt at "haggling" with the German government over compensation.

Interestingly, however, Report Mainz also refers to an unpublished report from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission which found that 112 civilians were killed. (Those who sprechen kein Deutsch can drop the text into Google translate, though expect difficult reading of grammar strange in.) Of course it is difficult to know what to make of this assertion. The AIHRC's staff have shown themselves to be quite competent in the past, but it is unclear why the report wasn't published. However, it is worth noting that Amnesty found that "at least 83" of 142 victims were civilians.

It is worthwhile to note here some details of other things about the Kunduz bombing which have come to light. Much of the controversy centers upon two actions of Colonel Georg Klein, the commanding officer who ordered the September 4 airstrike. First, Klein told the American pilots who were dispatched to the scene that his forces had an informer on the ground at the riverbank relaying real time intelligence on the situation. Then Klein rejected the suggestion that the pilot first fly in close on the scene in order to scare off civilians.

The Kunduz incident recently made headlines in Germany once again after it emerged that Chancellor Angela Merkel may have lied about when she learned of civilian casualties in the September bombing. The Irish Times has some excellent coverage of this development:
An e-mail from Germany’s secret service, leaked to Der Spiegel magazine, suggests the chancellery was informed nine hours after the German-ordered strike on September 4th that 50-100 civilians had been killed.

By contrast, for days after the strike – three weeks before the general election – former defence minister Franz Josef Jung claimed that “only Taliban terrorists” had been killed...

Mr Jung was forced to resign from Dr Merkel’s new cabinet after it emerged that he knew about civilian casualties far earlier than he admitted in public...

“Merkel allowed the defence minister to lie about civilian casualties, contrary to the facts,” said Jürgen Trittin, co-leader of the opposition Greens...

The current defence minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, first called the bombing military justified, then changed his mind. He blamed his top two military advisers for the U-turn and dismissed them, claiming they had withheld crucial information from him. He then later changed his mind on being misinformed.

It later emerged that German special forces were closely involved in the strike, suggesting it was a targeted strike against Taliban leaders near the tankers and not, as claimed in public, a preventative measure to stop the tankers being turned into rolling bombs... (link)
That last bit is quite important in light of the NATO version of events, which told of Taliban insurgents attempting to attack foreign occupation forces with two stolen tanker trucks. It makes a difference legally, since if the Taliban are about to attack, they can be counter-attacked. But if they were simply transporting fuel they would arguably be hors de combat, thus a legally dubious target. Of course, the suspects in this case were in possession of stolen fuel, but that would arguably be a police matter, and not an act which justifies an armed attack in response.

Of particular interest also is the apparent involvement German special forces, mostly likely the KSK who are known to be operating in Afghanistan.

** Interestingly, the Reuters dispatch in the Province notes the Taliban's own efforts to assess the attack: "The Taliban said they had set up their own commission to investigate the incident and released a list of 79 civilians killed in the air raid. The list includes 24 children under age 18." If we assume that Amnesty's tally of 83 dead is authoritative, it is noteworthy that the Taliban's initial report was the most accurate, erring on the conservative side.


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