By any standard, it was a disastrous day for an important U.S. ally in Afghanistan. First, three German soldiers died in an unusually fierce battle with insurgents, then German troops accidentally killed six Afghan soldiers apparently coming to their aid.
The chaotic chain of events in the northern province of Kunduz, detailed by Afghan and NATO officials Saturday, a day after the fact, could further undermine German public backing for the conflict.
Slipping support by North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies could jeopardize the Obama administration’s plan to hit the Taliban hard this year, with the aim of weakening the insurgents to the point that they might be receptive to a negotiated settlement. That in turn is aimed at laying the groundwork for a gradual Western withdrawal beginning in mid-2011.
While the United States rushes troops to Afghanistan’s restive south, where a major offensive is planned this spring and summer in Kandahar province, Taliban fighters and their allies are making their presence felt in areas of the country that had been relatively peaceful.
That includes Afghanistan’s north, where Germans make up the bulk of the Western troop contingent, supported by smaller numbers of U.S. special forces, together with Afghan soldiers.
Germany claimed the northern mandate in part because of a wish to focus its forces’ efforts on reconstruction and peacekeeping rather than engaging in what the military calls “kinetic” encounters -- heavy combat of the sort that U.S., British, Canadian and other troops routinely encounter in the south.
But Friday’s confrontation in Kunduz was about as kinetic as it gets. Late in the day, German troops working on a bridge-building and mine-clearing project came under intense fire by as many as 200 insurgents, in a battle that provincial officials said lasted several hours. In addition to the three Germans killed, at least five were wounded, some seriously.
In Germany, a country that had until then lost 35 soldiers in the course of eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, it was a toll with the potential to sway public opinion even more strongly against the war.
And that was before it was disclosed Saturday that German forces had been involved in one of the worst “friendly fire” incidents of recent months. A German patrol hurrying to aid those under fire encountered two vehicles and opened fire Friday night, military officials said. The six men killed turned out to be Afghan troops, not insurgents.
NATO expressed regret over the deaths and acknowledged that the Afghan vehicles had apparently been mistakenly fired upon. An investigation is underway.
“The loss of life during difficult operations is tragic, and we share condolences with all those who lost loved ones,” said Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force.
Western military officials said the German troops had used “escalation of force” procedures upon encountering the Afghan vehicles. That generally involves shouted warnings and the firing of warning shots. German officials said the vehicles were unmarked, but Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry said the vehicles carried standard military markings.
Germany is still feeling repercussions from an incident in Kunduz in September, when its forces called in an airstrike that killed more than 140 Afghans. That came after insurgents hijacked a fuel tanker, which German commanders feared could be used in a suicide attack on their base. Local officials said dozens of the dead were civilians.