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Angela Merkel on defensive after Afghan tanker attack blunder by German forces

Chancellor Angela Merkel was today forced to fight off her critics and persuade an increasingly sceptical nation that German troops should stay in Afghanistan.

The fight took place during an impassioned parliamentary session following the Allied bombardment of two fuel trucks, hijacked by Taleban geuerrillas last Friday, which led to the death of over 59 people.

Many were likely to have been civilians from a nearby village wanting to siphon petrol from the containers.

The US raid was ordered by a German commander who feared that the trucks could have been used as bombs-on-wheels against the nearby German base in Kunduz. But the killing of civilians has outraged the German public and, after months of trying to bury the war as an election issue, it now seems that it might tip the popular mood against Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats. The general election in Germany is due on September 27.

Juergen Trittin, Foreign Affairs spokesman of the opposition Greens, told the Chancellor: "The new Nato policy in Afghanistan in the case of such incidents is supposed to be apologise, compensate, investigate. You have done the opposite: cover-up, deny and in the last resort, if absolutely necessary, apologise."

Ms Merkel's Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung initially denied that any civilians died in the attack, but found himself promptly contradicted by the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Mr Jung then rowed back admitting the possibility of non-Taleban casualties.

"You have become a burden to Germany 's Afghan policy," said Mr Trittin, addressing Mr Jung. "And you Ms Merkel, you carry the responsibility." The Government, he said, should have been persuading the German population of the need to rebuild Afghan civil society over the past four years. "Instead you adopted a strategy of fudge becaue you know how unpopular this mission is in the country."

Other opposition parties also demanded a re-think.Oscar Lafontaine of the Left Party, which is enjoying a surge of support in the country, demanded a withdrawal. "Why don't you have the courage, like the Canadians, to set an exit date?" he asked. "War is not a political instrument. Bring the troops back from Afghanistan!" His favoured exit date is 2010 or 2011.

Even the liberal Free Democrats, a potential ally of Ms Merkel in a future government, bemoaned the fact that Ms Merkel had not kept to her international committments, supplying less than half the promised police officers to train Afghan policemen.

Ms Merkel made plain that she was furious about the critical voices raised against Germany within the Alliance.

Foreign ministers from France and Italy had been quick to describe the bombing of the tankers as a serious mistake, and General McChrystal had taken the unusual step of allowing a reporter into a closed mission assessment meeting between the German and the American officers.

This had flushed out US criticism that the Germans, in calling in air support, had relied on a single intelligence source (a breach of the new Nato combat guidelines) and that the best way to have dealt with the incident would have been to send in German groundtroops.

The US and other Nato allies, in other words, suspected that German commander was willing to risk civilian casualties in order to shield his own men.

"I will not accept such pre-judgements, neither from critics at home nor abroad," said Ms Merkel. She had made this plain "and in very unambiguous terms" to the Nato Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. As for the victims, "every innocent victim in Afghanistan is one too many," she said. "We mourn each one of them."

Ms Merkel has effectively declared that she will now be directly responsible for dealing with Afghanistan. The Chancellor is nervous that rows over Afghanistan about German fighting methods and troop levels could sour the transatlantic relationship.

In addition the secret weapon of the Social Democrats, ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, has started to go on the stump demanding a 2015 exit date from Afghanistan.

Her line of defence emerged in parliament today: she will try to dull German anger with war casualties (35 German soldiers have been killed so far) and capitalise rather on popular resentment that other nations are starting to tell the Germans what to do on the battlefield.

Stefan Szaboo, head of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, a forum for dealing with challenges facing Transatlanitc relationships, said: "I am amzed at the (US) criticism. After all, the US Administration wants Angela Merkel to win and wants more German involvement in Afghanistan after the elections."
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