Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Hollow Excuses

Thomas Ruttig 3 min

We apologize. It was a mistake. We regret the loss of innocent life.’ How often have I heard these sentences after operations of NATO troops had caused – what a horrible trivialisation – ‘collateral damage’.

Graffiti on a wall in Kunduz. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2007)

How often have I heard these sentences after operations of NATO troops had caused – what a horrible trivialisation – ‘collateral damage’. Killed civilians after airstrikes in Azizabad in Herat, Ganjabad and Granay in Farah. Police mistakenly killed in Zabul and construction workers mistakenly killed in Khost. A mistakenly bombed wedding in Deh Bala, Nangrahar. A mistakenly killed wuluswal in Chora, Uruzgan…

‘We apologize. It was a mistake. We regret the loss of innocent life.’

How often have I been sitting with Afghan friends in Kabul, Khost or Tirinkot and shared their grief. And their anger about this shoot-first, apologise-later-and-compensate approach. 1,500 US dollar for an Afghan life. How often have NATO and US spokespersons vehemently, even angrily denied any wrongdoing? How often has it turned out that these denials were premature and that sometimes the truth simply had not been told?

Now, for the first time on this scale, a German has ordered such a fateful airstrike. Scores of people have been burnt alive in Aliabad district after two fuel tankers abducted by Taleban were bombed by NATO planes early Friday night, 4 September. Angela Merkel, the head of government of my country, echoed these often-heard sentences quoted above by saying in the German Bundestag on Tuesday 8 September, four days after the incident: ‘Any innocent person killed or hurt, including through German actions, I deeply regret. (…) It is important to me as German chancellor to express this today, and to the Afghan people (…). I will ensure that we will not put a gloss on’ any investigation.

At the same time, she insisted that no premature judgment should be made. Fair enough. But is there still any doubt that civilians were harmed? There is at least that ten-year old boy who went to watch – against his father’s advice – and now is in hospital in Kunduz. We saw him on Afghan TV. He can be visited, asked. And there are those who – in the words of the Kunduz governor – were charred beyond recognition by the fireball caused by the bomb dropped on the tankers. All of them Taleban terrorists? Was the boy the only onlooker?

And let’s look at the rules, the directives issued to all NATO troops, designed to avoid the killing of innocent civilians. They are very clear: withdraw when civilians could be harmed. A spokesman of the German Ministry of Defence confirmed this; he was quoted as saying on the day of this blunder: ‘You can assume that an attack was ordered because no non-involved civilians could have been harmed by the attack.’ And: ‘If civilians had been present, the attack would not have been allowed to happen.’

(On the BBC world news, the incident was discussed as ‘a PR disaster for NATO’. A remarkable perspective, to look on this more from the point of view of the consequences for the international presence in Afghanistan than from the point of view of the human tragedies.)

But it happened. No one doubts that there were Taleban around the tankers. No one even doubts that most of the people around were Taleban. Most, not all of them.
Imagine an Afghan village during the holy month of Ramazan. It is after midnight, around 2 in the morning. People are asleep. Then two fuel tankers roll in, with fuel for free. People would get up soon anyway, to cook and eat before sunrise. And fuel isn’t cheap. So why not go and get some?

Under these circumstances, the justifications given by German politicians – with general elections in less than three weeks’ time and 70 percent of the voters demanding an immediate withdrawal of the German troops – ring hollow. The decision to call in the airstrike was ‘hard but according to the situation’, says Defence Minister Franz-Josef Jung. The tankers could have been driven to the German PRT and blown up, ‘with terrible consequences for our soldiers’. But they were moving in another direction, away from the PRT, and even got stuck in a river.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in his speech in the Bundestag on 8 September trying to explain what happened in Kunduz used the term ‘fight against terrorism’. (Yes, he also said that it cannot be won ‘by military means only’.) But we thought that after President Obama’s election we had dropped that horribile dictum.

The minister added that ‘the Taliban apparently do not refrain from anything in order to destabilise the security [of Afghanistan] and to prevent reconstruction from happening’. Absolutely. They burn down schools, cut throats of people, use car bombs and kill more civilians than the NATO troops. But the Taleban are not representing a democratic country.

This is a slightly extended version of an Op-Ed that today appears in Killid magazine, Kabul.