Pinn illustration

The night a German army colonel by the name of Georg Klein called in a massive Nato airstrike on two fuel trucks hijacked by Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan was a watershed moment. Although the exact number of casualties is still unknown – estimates suggest more than 50 died – it seems likely that it will prove to have been, as one American newspaper put it, “the most deadly operation involving German forces since World War II”. But will we also remember it as the night Germany grew up and started to call a war a war?

Given the international brouhaha that ensued, it is worth pausing to note that it remains far from clear whether last Friday’s incident in Kunduz will go down in history as tactical ineptitude or tragedy. The danger was real: fuel trucks are popular low-tech mobile bombs throughout the region. Was it imminent? The trucks were stuck in a river, at night; but news reports say that the Taliban hijackers had already corralled villagers to help pull them out. Quite possibly, Col Klein chose what appeared as the lesser of two evils on the basis of imperfect information: the classic dilemma of military leadership.

Then again, why did the Germans take so long afterwards to investigate, talk to locals and acknowledge civilian deaths? Why did they not choose a lower-impact option, such as repeated overflights followed by a sortie of ground troops? Was this a decision not to risk the lives of German soldiers, or was it an implicit recognition that the contingent lacked the capabilities to go out and win decisively? Was the Germans’ will or strength sapped by the intensity of combat in the preceding weeks and months?

Hard questions, indeed. One thing only seems certain: definite answers will not be forthcoming before the German elections on September 27.

All the more surprising, then, that a roster of international experts – from General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander of the Nato forces in Afghanistan, to Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief – felt called upon to pass judgment swiftly, severely and publicly on the lonely decision made by Col Klein. Of course, the cause of clarity was not served either by the hapless German defence minister, Franz Josef Jung, who had to apologise for the civilian deaths he had previously flatly denied.

Yet while it may not be possible for a while to accurately evaluate the events in Kunduz, reactions to the bombing throw a stark light on German attitudes to the use of force as much as on the state of the western alliance. The German position is not without irony. In 2002, references to pre-emption in the most recent iteration of the US National Security Strategy were excoriated in Germany as undermining deterrence. Yet Col Klein’s decision to attack before the Taliban could do so was a classic act of pre-emption. Afghan leaders, meanwhile, grumble that the Germans’ current difficulties stem from an unwillingness to show strength early – in other words, a failure of deterrence.

Moreover, in bombing the trucks (and, according to Nato, killing civilians), the Germans did exactly what they kept lecturing the Americans to stop doing, while the Americans are now lecturing us for doing what they used to do, but are no longer doing, at least in part because of our lecturing. This (once you figure it out) would seem to undermine one of Germany’s cherished ideas about itself: that, whatever the state of its military, it is at all times morally a superpower.

The Kunduz incident buried two other German myths: the conviction that bad things do not happen to us because we are the good guys; and the idea that we are conducting a stabilisation operation. The first was finished off by the Taliban’s northern spring offensive; the second by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who referred to the engagement as a “combat mission” in the Bundestag on Tuesday.

The Bundestag debate provided an instructive snapshot of German attitudes to the Afghan mission. Ms Merkel, for the Christian Democrats, reiterated Germany’s commitment, regretted the civilian deaths and chastised the critics: unequivocal and uninspiring. Her challenger, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic party, labelled calls for a pullout irresponsible – an admirably clear message of rejection to all those in his party clamouring to make common cause with the Left party.

Yet it was Jürgen Trittin, the Greens’ top foreign policy expert, who ruthlessly made the points that both Ms Merkel and Mr Steinmeier avoided. Gen McChrystal, he said, had investigated as the German military dithered; and the Berlin government had been muddling through, avoiding debate at all costs.

It is too early to gauge whether Germany’s moment of truth in Kunduz will finally give the Left party the traction that has so far eluded it on the national level and fuel a debate over withdrawal. The Left party is so divided that it has not even been able to draw up an election manifesto. But polls show a majority of the German public to be deeply sceptical of involvement in Afghanistan, as are significant groups in all the parties. The Left party’s spoiler potential, at least, should not be underrated. The current mandate for the Bundeswehr’s 4,500-troop Afghan commitment is up for renewal in December.

All this comes at a difficult moment for the alliance and for Afghanistan. Amid allegations of massive fraud in August’s Afghan election, the Obama administration is faced with grim assessments by its generals, a stretched army, a reluctant public and even more reluctant allies. One lesson of the Kunduz incident is that an alliance, besides troops and hardware, also depends on intangible assets: resilience, mutual trust and loyalty.

The writer is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin

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