Anger Mounts in Germany Over Its Afghan Air Strike

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Michael Kappeler / Pool / Reuters

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg meets German soldiers during a visit to their military camp in Kunduz

Three months after a German-ordered air strike in Kunduz, Northern Afghanistan, Germany's Defense Ministry is poised to pay compensation to the relatives of Afghan civilians killed in the attack. On Wednesday, a lawyer representing victims' families held talks with Defense Ministry officials in Berlin aimed at hammering out a compensation deal. "This isn't just about dishing out a few dollars," Karim Popal, a Bremen-based lawyer representing 80 relatives of victims, tells TIME. "We want to set up a special fund and provide long-term help for the women and children who lost their families' breadwinners in the air strike."

Popal claims the missiles fired by an American fighter jet on the orders of a German military commander killed 137 Afghan civilians, injured 20 and left 22 missing. According to Popal's research, compiled with the help of locals in Kunduz, only five Taliban fighters were at the scene. But amid conflicting reports from the Afghan government, local officials and leaked German military reports, it's still not clear how many Afghans died. Popal says he has met a 30-year-old Afghan woman who lost her husband and father in the raid and now has to look after her six daughters by herself. "My clients are furious that German forces ordered the Kunduz air strike. They feel very disappointed," says Popal. "They see German troops as murderers, just as American soldiers are viewed."

Anger is mounting in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is reeling from allegations that officials withheld information on civilian casualties from the public. The scandal has claimed the scalps of former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung and the German army's chief of staff, Wolfgang Schneiderhan. Paying compensation to victims' families is one way to draw a line under the affair as quickly as possible. An out-of-court settlement would avoid a long legal battle with relatives of the victims, and the amount of the payout will depend on the number of civilian casualties. A Defense Ministry spokesman says the government hopes for "a fast, unbureaucratic solution."

This will not be the first time the German government has paid compensation to relatives of civilians killed in Afghanistan. In 2008, the German army handed $20,000 to the family of an Afghan woman and two children who were shot dead by a German soldier at a checkpoint. But given the scale of September's air strike in Kunduz — widely considered the most deadly air raid involving German forces in Germany's post-war history — the payout to victims' relatives is bound to be much bigger. The Defense Ministry spokesman dismisses German media reports of a $4.5 million payout as "pure speculation."

The cost of the tragic blunder to Merkel's government could take longer to assess. A parliamentary commission is set to investigate the air strike next week, and Germany's current Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, one of the country's most popular politicians, has already been forced into an embarrassing repudiation of his statement last month that the air strike had been "militarily appropriate."

And the controversy comes at an awkward time, with Germany under increasing pressure to contribute more troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Despite doubts over the German mission in Afghanistan, on Dec. 3, the Bundestag voted to extend the mandate by another year, until 2010. There are now about 4,300 German soldiers in Afghanistan — most are based in the north of the country — and Germany is the third biggest troop contributor after the U.S. and Britain. But the U.S. is looking for a bigger commitment. "More German troops would be very welcome," Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan, told the German paper Berliner Zeitung on Dec. 9.

Merkel has said she won't make a decision on deploying any more German troops until after the international conference on Afghanistan to be held in London on Jan. 28. But with Horst Seehofer — leader of her Christian Democrats' sister party and coalition partner, the Bavarian Christian Social Union — already signaling his opposition to boosting German forces, it's clear that the decision won't be easy.