KABUL – An airstrike by U.S. fighter jets that appears to have killed Afghan civilians could turn into a major dispute for NATO allies Germany and the United States, as tensions began rising between them Sunday over Germany’s role in ordering the attack.
Afghan officials say up to 70 people were killed in the early morning airstrike Friday in the northern province of Kunduz after Taliban militants stole two tanker trucks of fuel and villagers gathered to siphon off gas.
Afghan and NATO investigations are just beginning, but both German and U.S. officials already appeared to be trying to deflect blame.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the Taliban’s possession of the two tankers “posed an acute threat to our soldiers.” German officials have said the tankers might have been used as suicide bombs.
“If there were civilian casualties or injuries, of course we deeply regret that. At the same time, it was clear that our soldiers were in danger,” Jung said in comments to German broadcasters. “Consequently, I stand clearly behind our commander’s decision” to order the air strike.
Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the top U.S. and NATO spokesman in the country, said German troops let too many hours pass before visiting the site of the bombing Friday.
He explained that it’s important to hold the ground after a strike and determine what happened before the enemy comes out with its own version of events.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, visited the site Saturday where two charred trucks and yellow gas cans sat on a riverbed. He asked a top commander in Regional Command North about the response time.
“Why didn’t RC-North come here quicker?” McChrystal asked Col. Georg Klein, the commander of the German base in Kunduz.
“I can honestly say it was a mistake,” Klein answered, in a discussion witnessed by an Associated Press reporter.
On Sunday, Smith said that in McChrystal’s judgment the response time “was probably longer than it should have been.”
German troops in Afghanistan have long been criticized for avoiding combat operations, even as militants have increasingly infiltrated northern Afghanistan the last year, destabilizing the once-peaceful region.
Taliban militants stole two fuel tankers late Friday that became stuck on a riverbed outside Kunduz. Villagers — either forced by the militants or enticed by offers of free fuel — gathered near the trucks, even as U.S. jets patrolled overhead.
German commanders watching images from the U.S. aircraft could see about 120 people, McChrystal said Saturday. The commanders decided that the people were militants and ordered the airstrikes, Smith said, even though images provided by the U.S. aircraft would have been grainy and difficult to see.
Whether the German commanders or the U.S. pilot are at fault for any civilian casualties may turn into an inner-NATO tussle.
Smith said the ground force commander “is the decision maker for close air support. That’s doctrine.” But he also conceded that a pilot can refuse an order to drop a bomb.
Klein, in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, declined to say whether images provided by the U.S. jets had been clear enough for weapons to be seen among Afghans on the ground, citing the ongoing investigation.
A German Joint Terminal Air Controller, or JTAC, who spoke on condition that his name not be used because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said the rules for ordering an attack clearly state that the ultimate decision rests with the ground commander.
But rules also require that both the pilot and the JTAC get a good positive identification of the target before the commander can order a weapon deployed, the JTAC said.
“Only when both are sure that what we see is a target, only then will the pilot drop the bomb,” the JTAC said.
The German Defense Ministry, meanwhile, pushed back against a story published in the Washington Post that German officials said painted their commander in a poor light and played up the U.S. version of events. The ministry said the article “will definitely influence at least the preliminary investigation by the various bodies.”
“The Defense Ministry is very surprised about the unusual procedure of using a journalist as a source to reveal initial investigation results,” the ministry said.
Kris Coratti, director of communications for the Washington Post, said in an e-mail: “The story speaks for itself.”
Smith said a trip to Kunduz by military officials from Kabul was not an official investigation but a fact-finding trip.
“And I think it’s much, much better for people to understand the facts,” he said of the decision to allow a journalist to witness the discussion among military officials.
No NATO officials will yet say how many civilians they think may have died. Smith on Saturday said the preliminary overall death toll was believed to be 56. Afghan officials say it’s in the low 70s.
Smith said he hopes a U.S.-German rift does not develop over the strike. “I hope everyone allows the investigation to proceed and we’ll determine what we know more precisely and move on from there,” Smith said.
The director of an Afghan human rights group criticized NATO’s International Security Assistance Force for the deaths. “It was carelessness in terms of ISAF using force without doing enough to investigate whether this is a civilian location,” Ajmal Samadi of Afghan Rights Monitor said.
German troops have long been criticized for restrictions that limit the battle their troops see. A U.S. based military analyst, Anthony Cordesman, said German troops don’t have “the situational and combat experience” to confront Taliban on the ground.
“They’re as oriented toward staying in their armored vehicles as any group I’ve met,” Cordesman said. “They’re not active enough to present much of a threat to the Taliban most of the time.”
Klein rejected the claim that his troops lacked combat experience.
“Since I arrived here we have unfortunately seen many combat situations and my soldiers performed very well,” he said.
“But the thing that’s always given us a very good reputation in the civilian society here is that we tried as best as possible to exclude any civilian casualties, and I’ve got very good feedback on that from the Afghan people,” he said.
Associated Press reporters Douglas Birch and Kay Johnson in Kabul and Melissa Eddy in Berlin contributed to this report. Frank Jordans reported from Kunduz.