Last orders for troops arriving for daily duty with hangovers

After a Nato airstrike killed as many as 125 people last week, General Stanley McChrystal was keen to get the situation under control — fast.

When he tried to contact his underlings to find out what had happened, however, he found, to his fury, that many of them were either drunk or too hungover to respond.

Complaining in his daily Commander’s Update that too many people had been “partying it up”, General McChrystal, head of International Forces in Afghanistan (Isaf), banned alcohol at his headquarters yesterday, admonishing staff for not having “their heads in the right place” on Friday morning — a few hours after the deadly attack.

What was an oasis of coffee shops and bars where commanders could enjoy a beer or three will now be a dry area.
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German soldiers in northern Afghanistan have been criticised for calling in an American F15 Strike Eagle to drop two 500lb bombs on a pair of hijacked fuel tankers in Kunduz at about 2.30am on Friday. Scores of local people who had gathered to siphon fuel from the lorries were killed in the explosions.

Nato began an investigation later that morning but military sources said that General McChrystal was furious because he “couldn’t get hold of the people he needed to get hold of and he blamed it on all-night partying”.

Rear-Admiral Gregory Smith, the top US spokesman in Afghanistan, accused German troops of waiting too long after the blasts to investigate the scene. When General McChrystal flew north, the local German commander, Colonel Georg Klein, told him that it was too dangerous to visit the blast site, four miles outside their camp, because they might get shot at.

President Karzai called the airstrikes unacceptable, and the fallout has heightened tensions inside Nato. Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, described the bombing as a big mistake and the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, called it a “very sad event”.

Germany insisted yesterday that the tankers posed an acute threat to their troops because they could have been used for suicide bomb missions. Josef Jung, the Defence Minister, told parliament that there were no civilian casualties, and his deputy, Christian Schmidt, demanded that “foreign ministers from other countries should wait for the investigations”.

The German military is set to face tough questions, however, after a preliminary investigation found that the bombs were dropped in breach of Nato guidelines.

The decision was based mainly on information from a single intelligence source, who claimed that everyone at the scene was part of the Taleban.

Afghan human rights investigators said that as many as 70 civilians were among the dead and only a dozen insurgents were killed.

The row mirrors tensions inside the Nato-led international force over the two-tier nature of the coalition, where a handful of the member nations do the lion’s share of the fighting.

American soldiers, who have one of the strictest work ethics, joke that Isaf stands for “I Saw Americans Fighting”.

US troops are banned from drinking and British troops are allowed to drink only at official functions with special permission. Soldiers from the rest of the 42-nation alliance are governed by divergent national guidelines on alcohol consumption.

The Isaf headquarters is only half a mile square but it has at least seven bars that serve tax-free beer and wine — including a Tora Bora sports bar complete with flat-screen televisions and football memorabilia, the Gravel Pit, which has a snooker table, a German beer hall, the 37 Club and a Nordic Palace.

One insider said: “Thursday nights are the big party nights, because Friday’s a ‘low-ops’ day. They even open a bar in the garden at headquarters. There’s a ‘two can’ rule but people ignore it and hit it pretty hard.”

A group of Macedonian guards were sent home this year because they were discovered drunk on duty, while protecting the back gate.

The problem became so acute that military police started breathalysing drivers and pedestrians around the base.

“General McChrystal is extremely focused on the mission and he feels that the folk who are here at the headquarters level need to be at the top of their game in terms of supporting the folks out in the field,” an Isaf spokesman said. “The Kunduz incident provided an opportunity for him to articulate his concerns in this regard, but it was not the cause of the order nor is there any indication at this point that alcohol consumption was somehow a factor in the incident.”

He added that the decision was driven partly by respect for Muslim culture.

Civilian staff have been advised to make arrangements to stay off camp if they have more than two beers in an evening, but soldiers stationed elsewhere will still be free to drink.

The military airport KAIA was dubbed Kaia-napa, after the Cyprus resort, because there are so many bars; the main French garrison in Kabul has at least five bars with ales on tap. The Spanish and Italian troops stationed in the west are known within Nato for drinking wine at lunchtime.

At the main German base in Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, there is a purpose-built nightclub known as the Beach Club Bar where hundreds of camp-bound troops party every Thursday. In a leaked report, German officers branded their troops there “useless cake-eaters,” before a parliamentary report revealed that 3,500 troops had consumed about 1.7 million pints of beer and 90,000 bottles of wine in a year.

In December their reputation suffered another blow when they were branded too fat to fight: a report claimed that 40 per cent of the troops aged 18-29 were overweight, compared with 35 per cent of the civilian population.

Talk of the new ban dominated conversations at Ciano’s pizzeria at the headquarters yesterday. The restaurant used to serve thousands of bottles of Peroni beer every month. The soldiers with calzones were resigned to sipping coffee instead.

Many of the civilian staff, who are free to leave the base, were not concerned. “It’s only on HQ that they’ve banned it. All the other bases that served it, still do,” one said.


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