On September 4th 2009, NATO‘s ISAF broke the news in a press statement that they conducted an air strike in the Afghan Kunduz province against two fuel tankers that have been stolen by insurgents:

“After ISAF observed the insurgent activity and assessed civilians were not in the area, a local ISAF commander authorized an air strike. A large number of insurgents were reported killed or injured and the fuel trucks were destroyed in the attack.”

After it transpired that a large number of civilians were also among the casualties, ISAF launched an investigation that is still going on right now. While ISAF are understandably very tight lipped about that incident at the moment, the Pentagon‘s American Forces Press Service has more details:

“The incident occurred after Taliban insurgents hijacked two fuel trucks. They drove the trucks to the banks of the Kunduz River where they became stuck in the mud. NATO soldiers spotted the trucks, ascertained there were no civilians present and called for the air strike. American F-15E Strike Eagles dropped ordnance on the site. (…) Now there are charges that, in addition to the Taliban, civilians were present. News reports indicate that civilians from neighboring villages may have been siphoning gas from the trucks. Estimates of the number of dead vary, with German officials – who patrol the area – saying there were 50.”

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of US and western troops in Afghanistan visited the bombing site and a hospital where some of the injured were being treated.

General McChrystal’s role in this incident is a surprisingly positive one: almost immediately after assuming command some three months ago, he tightened the rules of engagement in order to curb the all too frequent bombings against innocent civilians that have cost ISAF a lot of sympathies among the local population. One of those rules mandated that any local commander who authorized an air strike had to ascertain from at least two independent sources/witnesses that no civilians were present at the designated target.

Apparently, the local German commander who has authorized the air strike was in possible breach of the rules, having relied on just one Afghan informant. This incident happened in the midst of the ongoing campaign for German federal elections, and has stirred a political controversy, because Germany’s involvement in ISAF is widely unpopular there.

While the controversy has focused mainly on that German commander’s possible breaching of the updated RoE, one aspect has been neglected so far:

What about the F-15E pilot’s shared responsibility for the civilian casualties?

Even if it was pitch dark at 2.00am in the night, pilots do have night vision equipment. The pilot shouldn’t have relied exclusively on the laser marker of the local ground troops (if any), but should have seen that children were among the fuel thieves. Remember children? Those little folks who are smaller than adults, and who are usually harmless from a military point of view? Easily seen when flying over the target at low altitude and moderately low speed?

What I don’t understand is this: the F-15E Strike Eagle has an integrated General Electric M61A1 20mm cannon in addition to the usual missiles. The pilot could have used that cannon to deliver warning shots in the proximity of the target, to disperse the surrounding people (Talibans and civilians alike), before firing up its missiles into the fuel trucks.

Was the pilot so eager to kill a few Taliban, than he/she didn’t care about the surrounding civilians? If yes, the pilot may also be in breach of the new RoE, just like that German local commander.

Please don’t get me wrong here: destroying the fuel tankers that have fallen in enemy hands was and remains an absolute military necessity; and the Taliban are bad people for all the pain they inflict on the Afghan population, especially on girls and women. But that doesn’t give the German Bundeswehr, the US Air Force or ISAF in general the right to disregard their own rules of engagement by acting with so little respect for civilian life… including the life of petty fuel thieves.

Especially the Germans should remember how they’ve sent their own children climbing on top of slow-moving Reichsbahn military freight trains to steal coal and potatoes for the survival of their own starving and shivering families during World War II… a stunt that was terribly dangerous for the kids, as those trains were prime targets for allied bombers. A nation shouldn’t forget its recent past, and Germany’s defense minister Franz Josef Jung would be well advised to fully investigate that incident instead of unconditionally defending that air strike.

Update 2009-11-26: An exclusive video published by Germany’s leading yellow press Bild Zeitung (also on YouTube) and broadcasted on German TV news stations today shows the events as seen from the F-15E’s infrared camera. While people can clearly be seen from above, they are way too small to discriminate between children and adults (at least according to this particular video), so I may have been wrong with my previous criticism regarding the pilot’s behavior.

In fact, according to the (German) commentary on that video, at 1:36am, the pilots asked the German command center “Red Baron” whether they should try to disperse the possible civilians with a pass at low altitude. Red Baron’s reply: “negative.”  10 minutes later, the pilots asked whether the people on the ground were a clear and present danger. Red Baron confirms. At 1:49am, two GPS guided bombs exploded simultaneously near the trucks, setting them ablaze.

If this video is authentic, and the commentary on it can be trusted (it looks rather authentic to me, despite its tabloid source), the F-15E pilot(s)’s conduct was absolutely correct and in accordance with military RoE, and I was wrong questioning his/their integrity. The mistake was clearly, and solely on the German side.

Update 2009-11-27: Former defense minister and current minister of labor Franz Josef Jung was sacked stepped down. Politically, the affair is thus closed. Legally, I still think that the local commander Klein or whoever was bearing direct responsibility for “Red Baron”‘s operational orders ought to be prosecuted for gross negligence and breach of RoE, at least. I don’t see this happening anytime soon though.

Update 2010-06-09: As predicted, Col. Georg Klein won’t be prosecuted and goes unpunished. Why am I not surprised?

Update 2017-06-01: Colonel Georg Klein was promoted General in 2012... as a reward? Maybe that's because each Army needs some figureheads with a bad reputation as careless "mad dogs" to scare enemies? Very cynical, I know...


  1. Felipe Silton

    So… basically there are so many rules that there’s no way to win?

  2. General Stanley McChrystal’s disparaging critique of some of the Obama administration’s lead officials has left the president a extreme choice: look across remarks that fringe on rebellion, or terminate his lead commander at a critical moment in Afghanistan. I wouldn’t want to be in Obama’s position right now, even if these two people are meeting now to discuss it through. Pretty foolish to make national negative remarks about your boss like that though.