Every war produces an image that reflects the inherent drama of the conflict and represents a caesura of sorts, a pause for reflection. In Kosovo it was the bombing of the Chinese embassy. In Afghanistan it is the airstrikes, which are supposed to hit Taliban insurgents but end up killing civilians, because it is in the nature of guerrilla warfare for the combatants to willingly accept civilian casualties.

The international troops in Afghanistan have had enough bitter experience of this phenomenon, and yet it took years for a new airstrike doctrine to be laid down. The latter clearly stipulates that, in case of doubt, there are to be no airstrikes, and that protecting civilians takes first priority. So why the German commander in Kunduz ordered the strike on two fuel tankers will remain a mystery until we have sufficient information. And for the time being we shall have to credit the Bundeswehr’s account – that the trucks were going to be used as moving bombs – every bit as much as the claim that the vehicles had already been stuck in the mud for a long time and civilians were siphoning off the fuel.

Lack of solidarity

NATO and the UN have introduced the practice of charging an independent commission with the investigation of such airstrikes. The findings are then made public, as that is the only way to maintain public trust. So the present rush to judgment is all the more astounding: the Bundeswehr is being assailed by everyone from the ISAF commander to a whole slew of European foreign ministers.

That is not only unusual and rather short on solidarity, it is also risky: if the coalition partners dispute the German foreign minister’s credibility, what is the point of an investigation? There are plenty of reasons for this caustic tone: for one thing, the ISAF commander must fear for his own credibility just a few weeks after his change of strategy. What is more, the coalition partners harbour a basic resentment towards the German policy: while it is the third-biggest military contingent there, the German force is otherwise conspicuous for its good advice and lack of action. Now this know-it-all nation, constantly criticising the martial droning of its counterparts in the south, has to answer for the airstrike with what may well prove the highest death toll to date. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was particularly outraged – though maybe only because he scents in the German foreign minister a rival for his post as top EU diplomat.

Afghan war makes election entry

In Germany the grand coalition was hoping to keep the country’s most important military mission out of the campaign – the same way it has kept it out of widespread public debate for years. The north of Afghanistan has always stood for the Germans’ “good constructive mission”, while in the south the bad boys from the US were waging war with dubious methods. This construct collapsed in the spring when the German troops were repeatedly engaged in combat and suffered fatalities. Suddenly the rules of the game were changed, and the tone ratcheted up. It was clear to all the political players that they would have to disabuse Germany of its delusions and acquaint the public at home with the brutal reality – albeit not before the parliamentary elections please: most Germans are against the mission as it is.

Now, ironically enough, it is not the Taliban who have brought the issue into the campaign. It was a German commander’s order that hurled the mission like a bolt from the blue into the electoral debate. And that is where it will have to be discussed.

Two vital decisions are taking shape that will have to be negotiated after the elections: First of all, the international community is going to send more soldiers and, above all, more civilian aid workers: agricultural advisers, police instructors, public administration experts, doctors. Will the next Federal Government send its fair share too? Secondly, the international community is going to have to give the Afghan government an ultimatum: President Karzai has to decide whose side he is playing on, and whether he is serious about nation-building. Will the next Federal Government put pressure on Karzai and issue an ultimatum too?