8 September 2015

Germany and Sweden Helping the U.S. Target Its Drone Strikes in Afghanistan

Rod Nordland
September 4, 2015

Germany and Sweden Are Said to Help Make Afghan ‘Kill Decisions’

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two European allies of the United States have been directly participating in so-called kill decisions against insurgents in Afghanistandespite rules prohibiting them from doing so, according to two senior Western officials with knowledge of the operations.

The accusations concern airstrikes, mostly by drones, that American officials have justified as part of a lasting counterterrorism mission agreed to with the Afghan government. However, some of the strikes have come under question as being far more aggressive than the security deal allows for.

The two countries said to be improperly involved in approving strike decisions —Germany, a NATO member of the coalition in Afghanistan, and Sweden, which is not a member of NATO — as well as a spokesmen for the American-led military coalition all denied that anyone other than the United States military had been involved in targeting insurgents.

But the two senior officials said that the issue, which has not been publicly disclosed previously, has been quietly increasing tensions between the American military and its NATO and other allies. And the accusations are likely to cause a particular stir in Germany, where constitutional rules forbid offensive military operations in most cases and where human rights groups have joined lawsuitsthat alleged even indirect German assistance for American drone strikes.

Decision-making for lethal Afghan strikes takes place in a room within the coalition headquarters in Kabul known as the Combined Joint Operations Center, or C.J.O.C. There, videoscreens monitor the targeting of people identified as enemies who fall within the United States military’s authority to conduct counterterrorism strikes, and are supposed to keep civilians from being hit.

“They go around the table and say, ‘If you see any women or children, raise your hand,’ and that includes German and Swedish officers who are not supposed to be involved in counterterrorism,” said one of the senior officials, who has direct knowledge of the operation but spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the targeting process. “A lot of NATO officials are pretty upset about it.”

The other senior official, who similarly spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “This is the last thing NATO wanted to be involved in, but the Americans seemed to want everyone in on it. I guess they felt it gave them political cover.”

“They were sitting around there giving thumbs up or down, like gladiators in a stadium,” the second official said. “While it was meant to be a protection against civilian casualties, it made some of them very uncomfortable, particularly the Germans.”

While Germany has a significant contingent still in Afghanistan, it has always observed rules about avoiding engagement in offensive combat operations, which is forbidden by German constitutional law, with some narrowly defined exceptions.

Even the American role in choosing targets for airstrikes and Special Operations missions has been controversial. When President Obama declared that the American combat mission in Afghanistan would end on Dec. 31, 2014, becoming a training mission instead, exceptions were made for two situations: counterterrorism and force protection. The counterterrorism mission was intended to continue hunting militants with Al Qaeda hiding in Afghanistan, and force protection would allow for attacks on Taliban insurgents if they posed a threat to American or NATO forces.

However, most coalition allies, which include both NATO and a few non-NATO countries, who together make up nearly half of the 17,000 coalition soldiers now here, did not allow such exceptions, sticking to a strictly advisory role after Dec. 31.

Germany, the biggest troop contributor after the United States, had about 850 troops here as of May 31. The United States has about 9,800, including Special Operations forces that are not technically part of the NATO support mission.

Many Western and some American officials have expressed concern that under the coalition commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, those exceptions have been made almost the rule, with airstrikes and commando-style operations often being carried out against Taliban targets, including low-level commanders, without any direct threat to coalition forces.

General Campbell, an American officer, commands both NATO and United States forces in Afghanistan. Technically, counterterrorism operations fall under the latter command because the NATO mission, known as Resolute Support, is not supposed to be involved in them.

As recently as last week, two American Air Force Special Tactics Squadron soldiers were killed in Helmand Province, where the last American combat troopsleft more than a year ago. They were part of a unit with ground teams directing airstrikes against the Taliban, who had overrun the strategic town of Musa Qala.

The NATO and allied role in the kill-order process was brought to the attention of the Swedish ambassador here, Peter Semneby, who during a visit to coalition headquarters recently made a surprise request to see the joint operations center and expressed concern that a Swedish officer was present inside when kill orders were being discussed, according to the senior Western officials. Sweden is one of several non-NATO countries that provide soldiers for the coalition, mostly in support roles.

Mr. Semneby declined to comment, referring questions to the Swedish Ministry of Defense in Stockholm. Marinette Radebo, the ministry’s press secretary, said that while Sweden does have a liaison officer inside the operations center, “neither he nor any of the other Swedish staff officers are involved in decision-making or execution of counterterrorism operations.” She said that officers only relayed information and requests between coalition headquarters and the regional command in northern Afghanistan, where Swedish and German troops are predominantly based.

The German Embassy here referred questions about the targeting operations to Germany’s Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

Konrad Lax, a ministry spokesman, initially said, “Germany has not had personnel working at the C.J.O.C. at Resolute Support Mission Headquarters since the beginning of R.S.M. Germany does not conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and is not involved in counterterrorism decisions.”

Shortly later, however, Mr. Lax told The New York Times that he wished to withdraw that statement, saying that he was concerned that he may have been misinformed by “other ministries,” presumably meaning the German Defense Ministry. “Maybe they want to correct the information,” he said. “I am very sorry.”

The NATO spokesman in Kabul, Christopher Chambers, addressed the same question and confirmed the presence of German officers in the operations center as liaisons for the training mission, but he denied that they were involved in planning counterterrorism missions.

The NATO statement by Mr. Chambers added: “Resolute Support is not a combat mission, but we make sure we protect our forces in a manner consistent with NATO policy and international law; this can include using lethal force, if needed. We do all we can to minimize exposure to situations where the use of lethal force might be required.”

Informed of the NATO statement, Mr. Lax sent an updated reply on Tuesday, quoting the German Defense Ministry as saying that German personnel were present at the operations center only when operating as liaisons and were not engaged in any airstrike targeting.

A spokesman for the United States military in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, also denied that any allies were involved in the targeting process. “Non-U.S. NATO personnel serving in the Resolute Support Combined Joint Operations Center have no involvement in, or responsibility for, the planning or execution of kinetic operations conducted by United States Forces-Afghanistan,” he said. (Kinetic operations is military jargon for lethal or offensive combat missions.)

That was not the case as recently as a couple of weeks ago, one of the senior Western officials said. “This targeting is going on all over the country and has little to do with genuine force protection or CT operations,” he said, using the military acronym for counterterrorism.

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