In the early hours of September 4, German troops, going by the United States aerial reconnaissance images, ordered an air attack by U.S. jets on two hijacked fuel tankers in the northern province of Kunduz. According to a NATO fact-finding team, 125 people were killed in the attack, of whom at least two dozen were not members of the Taliban; Afghan rights groups say 70 civilians died. The death toll would have been even greater had the U.S. air coordinator not rejected the German request for 2000-pound bombs, opting instead for 500-pound ones. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has severely criticised the attack and asked why ground troops were not sent in, adding that General Stanley McChrystal, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan, had telephoned him to apologise and to confirm that he did not order the attack. The Kunduz governor, Mohammad Omar, has supported the attack but the episode has exacerbated tensions within NATO.
German criticism of other members’ combat operations in Afghanistan has not been welcomed by its allies, and now U.S. commanders are castigating their German counterparts for relying on the telephoned word of a single Afghan informant who insisted that all at the Kunduz site were insurgents. German commanders also failed to verify the facts on the ground by not sending troops to the site immediately after the air attack; instead, next morning they sent a pilotless aircraft to take photographs. Now they are angry that a Washington Post photographer was allowed to accompany the NATO team to the site, and see that as helping the U.S. press to criticise the German level of commitment. The consequences reach far abroad too, with the German domestic reaction now threatening the re-election prospects of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union (CDU) party. Other NATO allies will also be affected, as support for the NATO presence in Afghanistan is declining in both the U.S., where a recent poll put it at 47 per cent, and the United Kingdom, where a poll shows 59 per cent in favour of a troop withdrawal by Christmas 2009. Even senior military officers in the U.S. and the U.K. have expressed concern about their situation in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the conduct of NATO troops there remains a serious problem. Neither the attack on the tankers nor the recent incident in which U.S. troops rampaged through a Swedish charitable hospital in Wardak province will do anything but turn ordinary Afghans against their purported NATO helpers. The main issues, however, have to do with what NATO is trying to achieve at all in Afghanistan; eight years after the NATO invasion, that question still awaits an answer.