Germany's top military officer confirmed in Berlin on Thursday that an official NATO investigation has backed the Bundeswehr decision to call in the September 4 U.S. air strikes on two Taliban-hijacked tankers in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz region. After reviewing the still-classified report, Gen. Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the general inspector of the German armed forces, made the following statement: "According to my evaluation, the air strike was appropriate. I have no reason to doubt that the German soldiers made the right military move in view of the difficult situation". Very importantly, Schneiderhan pointed out that the NATO report did not confirm that the air strike had killed any "uninvolved persons".
If confirmed, the exonerating results of the 75-page NATO investigation should be welcome news for Chancellor Merkel (and her newly-formed CDU/CSU-FDP government) as Berlin had previously come under tremendous criticism from the U.S. and other key NATO allies such as France and the UK, which blamed Germany for causing civilian casualties in this particular incident. Chancellor Merkel had hit back at her critics (both foreign and domestic) early on.Earlier this week, outgoing German defense minister Franz-Josef Jung (he is now at the Labor Ministry) strongly defended Col. Georg Klein, the commanding officer in Kunduz who called in the Kunduz air strike and has since returned to his previous assignment in Potsdam. It remains to be seen whether prosecutors in the State of Saxony will charge Col. Klein with involuntary manslaughter or not. In particular, Jung sharply criticized the fact that Bundeswehr soldiers are routinely dragged into drawn-out judicial investigations conducted by non-military German prosecutors at the local level whenever there are allegations of civilian casualties, etc. in connection with Bundeswehr's foreign operations. Instead, Jung argued, there should be just one prosecutorial institution in Germany dealing with all such investigations into the conduct of Bundeswehr soldiers abroad.
For his part, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg -- Germany's new 37-year-old German defense minister who is also one of the country's most popular politicians -- has already made it clear that everything must be done to avoid a repeat of Kunduz-type incidents in the future. He also instructed his top military officer to carefully evaluate the report and "draw any consequences that might be necessary". This approach is also backed by Chancellor Merkel. In the meantime, the German defense ministry is in the process of having the classified NATO report translated into German to make it accessible to the leadership of all parliamentary groups in the Bundestag. Clearly, the political and military stakes are high. By December this year, the German Parliament will need to vote on the extension (and even potential increase) of the Bundeswehr's ISAF mission in Afghanistan.