A RIFT between the US and Germany over the conduct of the war in Afghanistan widened yesterday as both sought to shift blame over a botched bombing raid that led to scores of civilians being killed.
The German government defended the raid as “militarily necessary” to protect German troops, even though it went against the express orders of the new US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, to safeguard civilians. A human rights group, in the first independent assessment of the death toll, said that 60-70 civilians had been killed in the raid on Friday.
It was carried out by the US airforce but Gen McChrystal distanced himself from it, apologising to the Afghan government and saying he had not ordered it.
The strike was called in by a senior German officer. The German government said the officer feared two hijacked oil tankers, stuck in a riverbed, were to be used for a suicide bombing of the German base at Kunduz in the north of the country.
While the US has expressed most of its criticism in private, Afghan president Hamid Karzai did not hold back yesterday.
"What an error of judgment. More than 90 dead all because of a simple lorry that was, moreover, immobilised in a river bed," Mr Karzai said in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro. "Why didn't they send in ground troops to recover the fuel tank? Gen McChrystal telephoned me to apologise and to say that he himself hadn't given the order to attack."
It was the deadliest military operation Germany has been involved in since the second World War. Gen McChrystal’s new strategy, aimed at winning hearts and minds, suffered a double blow yesterday. It was disclosed that US troops had broken into a Swedish charity-run hospital in breach of international law to search for Taliban suspects.
The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which runs the hospital in Wardak province, south-west of Kabul, accused the US army’s 10th mountain division of forcing their way into its hospital on Wednesday, kicking down doors, tying up hospital guards and people visiting relatives, and forcing patients out of beds.
The rift between the US and its European allies comes against a background in which the Taliban is extending its influence in the country. Germany, Britain and France on Sunday proposed a conference to discuss how to get the Afghan government to take more responsibility for its own security.
The US has expressed private criticism of the German commander in Kunduz for calling in an air strike based on the assessment of one Afghan informant on the ground that the people around the tankers were Taliban and on grainy aerial photographs.
– (Guardian service)