While U.S. Drone Pilots Murder From German Soil, Some Germans Wage Desperate Battle to Hold Them Accountable
The food stand was completely destroyed. And so were the body parts of its owner, 21-year-old Sadiq Rahim Jan. The life of the young Afghan found dead in July 2012 had come to an abrupt end, but the drama his family would endure just began. Sadiq was the main breadwinner for his family, caring for his parents and four siblings. He operated the only food stand in the village of Gardda Zarrai in the eastern Afghanistan province of Paktia. Until today, nobody knows why he became the target of a drone pilot who killed him with the flick of a joystick button from Langley, Washington, or perhaps from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Drone attacks have become a part of daily life in Afghanistan, especially in the south and east of the country. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based organization, Afghanistan is the “most drone bombed country in the world.” Accurate data and casualty figures do not exist, thus the faces and names of many victims of America’s drone war remain unknown.
When Sadiq was killed, several media outlets based in Kabul reported about a "Taliban commander" who was killed by a drone strike in Gardda Zarrai. His family became outraged when Radio Azadi (formely Radio Free Afghanistan), a media outlet sponsored by the US Congress, dubiously equated their son with violent militants. In fact, Sadiq never had any connection to any militant group. He was nothing more than a food vendor caught in the crosshairs of a secret drone war waged from thousands of miles away.
In the days and weeks after Sadiq’s murder, not a single journalist visited his family to collect facts. In protest, the family turned to the local army and police. Sadiq's father wanted to know why his son was killed and why they referred to him as a Talib. He received no answers. How can an innocent young man be designated a Taliban commander without any evidence of his connection to the Taliban and other extremists? Noor Behram, a photojournalist from Waziristan, set out to explore this question.
After Behram talked with Pakistani journalists based in Islamabad, he came to the conclusion that it is enough for many media outlets to describe male drone victims as suspected terrorists if they wear long hair and a beard. Sadiq Rahim Jan had long hair and a beard. Since this appearance is as common among Afghans— especially on Pashtuns on both sides of the border —as crew cuts are within the ranks of US military, most Afghan males could be designated terrorists and targeted as such.
While US networks like ABC News and the Associated Press have parroted Pentagon and CIA claims about “suspected militants” without seeking independent confirmation, local Afghan outlets bear major responsibility for the biased media coverage regarding drone strike victims. Media centers like the US-funded Radio Azadi that described Sadiq as a "Taliban commander” is a key culprit. But it is not alone among the vast web of media outlets spawned in the wake of the NATO invasion of Afghanistan.
The main work of these local networks is propaganda for America’s drone war. Outlets like Tolo News, Afghanistan's first 24/7 news TV channel, or Khaama Press, one of the country's largest online newspapers, support the foreign invaders and nearly all their political and military actions. This generally means trafficking in deception and fabrications, not only regarding drone strikes but also relating to everything which might damage the Afghan government, its military or its intelligence services. It should come as little surprise that most of these elements, including many criminal warlords who fought with US troops against the Taliban and were responsible for countless war crimes, are on the United States' payroll.
Germany and the Drone War
From Stuttgart, Germany, a 24-year-old cousin of Sadiq is working to hold the US and German governments responsible for killing his cousin. Farhad and his family fled wartorn Afghanistan two decades ago and were welcomed as refugees in Germany. Germany is well established as a base of America's drone assassination program, reports the Intercept's Jeremy Scahill, and many others bear this out. Farhad knows his adopted country was an accomplice in killing his cousin and murdering thousands of other drone victims.
"We often feel totally powerless. Ordinary citizens like me and my family cannot do much against the superpower called United States of America,” Farhad told me.
Niema Movassat, a member of the German parliament from the leftist party Die Linke, said he "bugged" the government with questions regarding Ramstein Air Base, but it stayed silent. "Without Ramstein,” Movassat told me, “the whole drone war would be impossible. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government always knew about this fact. They also knew that it violates German law and it is illegal. Merkel will become prosecutable if she does not do anything against it now. Ramstein must be closed.”
Farhad’s hometown of Stuttgart is also a crucial point in the US-led drone war. The German city is the center of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) from which anti-terrorist operations on the African continent are coordinated. This includes drone strikes in countries like Somalia, where hundreds of nameless and faceless civilians have been killed during the last few years.
Nevertheless, after the new revelations Farhad is considering taking legal steps against the German government. "The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize [President Barack Obama] killed my cousin, together with Merkel,” the 24-year-old student declared. “I will try as much as possible to seek justice for Sadiq.”
Farhad and his family see a precedent in the actions of Faisal bin Ali Jaber, an engineer from Yemen who lost his brother-in-law and his nephew after a US drone strike in 2012. In October 2014, Jaber sued the German government after learning the drones were controlled by a pilot at Ramstein Air Base. Jaber will testify next month in front of a German court, where he will accuse Germany of violating a constitutionally enshrined duty to protect the right to life by allowing the United States to use the air base as part of its lethal drone operations.
But according to Farhad, the politically repressive atmosphere in Afghanistan presents a major hurdle. "The Afghan government is a close ally of the United States and Germany. They have never supported such investigations and we fear that they will harass and threat our relatives in Gardda Zarrai when they hear about such steps,” Farhad said.
The young Afghan might be right. All drone operations are fully accepted and supported by the Afghan government and its intelligence, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which is strongly connected with the CIA and is dependent almost entirely on American money.
A Notorious Massacre
To understand how challenging it is to hold the German government accountable for war crimes it has committed in Afghanistan, consider the case of Karim Popal, an Afghan-German lawyer who represents the victims of the notorious massacre of Kunduz.
On Sept. 4, 2009, a NATO jet fighter attacked two fuel tankers that had allegedly been hijacked by insurgents in Kunduz, a town in northern Afghanistan. At least 137 civilians were killed in the attack, most of them young men and children who had gathered around the tankers to tap petrol. Colonel Georg Klein, the German colonel who ordered the strike despite the presence of masses of civilians, maintained that all the dead were “militants” affiliated with the Taliban.
Later, even NATO came to the conclusion that Klein made crucial errors. For example, Klein lied by telling the responsible American pilot that "ISAF troops were in the middle of a fight with the enemy." He also claimed without evidence that "armed Taliban fighters" had gathered around the fuel tankers. Nevertheless, Klein was freed from all charges in Germany. In April 2013, he was even promoted to general.
When Karim Popal took the case of the victims, demanding higher compensation for all victims and their families from the German government, he was immediately smeared in the German media, with major papers accusing him of hidden links to extremists and Taliban fighters. He was cast as a huckster exploiting the victims to earn money and fame. Though the charges scarcely held up to scrutiny, Popal's reputation was destroyed. "If you stand up against the German government and the military, you make enemies all around you. And all of them unite with the aim to muzzle you,” Popal told me.
In December 2013, a state court in Bonn rejected Popal's application for compensation. The court ruled that there was no "culpable breach of official responsibility" by Colonel Klein. The court came to the conclusion that Klein did not violate international law that calls for the protect of civilians. As a result, the court stated, the German government could not be held liable. Popal appealed the sentence. With the final judgement due at the end of this month, Popal had made clear he will not stop at anything in his quest to hold the German government accountable. He is considering bringing the Kunduz cast to the European Court of Human Rights.
Who killed Sadiq?
The murder of Sadiq and the massacre of Kunduz are similar cases. In both instances, the culprits justified their acts by claiming they had targeted “terrorists.” And in each case, not a single political institution in Germany was interested in punishing the murderers. Instead they rejected all allegations and ignored the salient facts in order to acquit those accused of war crimes, first in the media, then in the German courts.
There is a crucial difference between Sadiq's murder and the Kunduz massacre, however. In the latter case, the culprit, General Georg Klein, was well-known. There was no doubt that this man was responsible for the mass murder. But instead of facing any punishment, he was promoted.
So what might happen to the drone pilots who killed thousands of people like Sadiq? Will their names ever be known and could they be held accountable? Probably not.
And which laws govern the activities of the members of the German intelligence (BND) that closely coordinates with the CIA and NSA and offers them data regarding "terrorist locations" in Afghanistan and elsewhere? The answer appears to be none.
The killers of countless innocent Afghans are operating on German soil. But unlike the rest of us in this country, they are above the law.