KUNDUZ, Afghanistan – Germany’s top military commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday he stood “fully behind” the German commander who called in a U.S. airstrike on fuel trucks hijacked by Taliban that killed civilians as well as insurgents.
Brig. Gen. Joerg Vollmer insisted in a phone interview with The Associated Press that Germany’s relations remain good with its NATO allies, including the United States, even after the U.S. military criticized the German officer who requested the attack in northern Kunduz province.
An Afghan official appointed by President Hamid Karzai to examine Friday’s attack said his best estimate of the death toll was 82, including at least 45 armed militants.
The top NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has pledged a full investigation.
Col. Georg Klein, the commander of German forces based in Kunduz, called in the airstrike by a U.S. fighter jet. German officials have said the Taliban may have been planning a suicide attack on the military’s base using the hijacked tankers.
The U.S. military has questioned whether the grainy images from surveillance aircraft seen by the German commanders on the ground were clear enough to establish alone that the people around the trucks were all militants. Reports suggest that civilians may have been siphoning fuel from the trucks when the two 500-pound (225-kilogram) bombs were dropped.
“We need to carefully collect all the facts and not come to rash conclusions,” Vollmer said. “I stand fully behind Col. Klein.”
Vollmer said the 4,200 German soldiers stationed in Afghanistan greatly appreciated their government’s support. In a statement to parliament Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against hasty criticism of her country’s troops.
“That’s something which gives us comfort and strength in those hours when things get a little bit difficult,” Vollmer said. He denied there was any rift between the German and U.S. troops.
“The rift that is being reported isn’t something I feel in the daily work with my American colleagues,” he said.
Vollmer vacates his post as NATO commander for northern Afghanistan next week. German media, including respected weekly Der Spiegel, have reported concern in Berlin that the U.S. may take over that command because of growing insecurity in the once-peaceful region.
Vollmer said there had long been an American presence in the region and noted their work in training the Afghan police.
But he said, “there won’t be any sizable increase in American forces in the north” since the U.S. military’s focus will remain the south and east of the country where the Taliban are strongest.
The U.S. military already has some forces based in Kunduz, who operate separately from the 1,100 German troops and a handful of other nations here, and it has expressed concern about insurgent activity there.
McChrystal told reporters at the Kunduz base Saturday that “particularly in Kunduz, but also in (neighbouring) Baghlan province we are trying to look at ways we can help the government of Afghanistan reduce that threat to their own sovereignty.”
Insurgents have stepped up attacks in Kunduz, a province dominated by Pashtuns – the largest Afghan ethnic group from which the Taliban garner their support and recruits. Some analysts say that insurgents have been able to operate with relative freedom because of the German military’s policy to make the security of its own troops its top priority.
Vollmer hinted that operations like Friday’s airstrike – the first German-led action in seven years to cause significant militant deaths – could become more frequent in future.
A several hundred-strong German quick reaction force has been moved to Kunduz in recent days and was due to begin a major operation in the north of the province Wednesday.
Vollmer blamed the tense security situation in Kunduz on the lack of Afghan police, the influx of former refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran, and efforts by militant groups to protect lucrative smuggling and extortion rackets from government interference.
“There was a vacuum, for a while, that helped strengthen different groups, some of them with links to Pakistan,” he said. “Their core aim is to prevent the government from establishing power in this area.”
Elsewhere in the north the security situation was generally good, Vollmer said.