German soldiers deployed in Afghanistan could soon face a new risky mission, if the government agrees to recommendations proposed by a German fact-finding team back from the northern city of Kunduz.
Keeping Kabul safe -- a German soldier in the Afghan capital.
Even as the debate continues on whether Germany will send soldiers to join peacekeeping operations in Iraq, Berlin faces another tricky defense question this week.
On Sunday, an investigation team sent to Afghanistan to check the security situation in the northern city of Kunduz and probe whether German soldiers based in Kabul could expand their mission there came back with a verdict: yes.
Media reports on Monday said that the fact-finding team, comprising members of the German armed forces, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, were of the opinion that more than a 100 German soldiers could be sent to Kunduz.
The findings may ease concerns that outlying Afghan provinces, beset by lawlessness and ruled by warlords, would be too dangerous for soldiers of the multinational peacekeeping force based in the capital of Kabul. But they are unlikely to completely convince German lawmakers to extend the Afghanistan mandate. Germany's parliament needs to sanction the extension by one year of the Afghanistan mandate, which runs out this December, as well give the nod to the Kunduz deployment.
Afghan peace in Germany's interest
German Defense Minister Peter Struck, an increasingly vocal supporter of expanding the Afghanistan mission, said on Monday a decision would be made in the German cabinet as early as in ten days. He added the chancellor’s security staff would meet by the middle of this week to take a tentative decision after it had heard out the expert team’s case.
Chancellor Schröder and other members of his coalition government have repeatedly stressed that securing the peace in Afghanistan lies in Germany’s interests. Earlier this month, Struck underlined the significance of that argument. "Special German interests lie in a region or a country outside Europe such as Afghanistan, where we are fighting international terrorism and have shown solidarity with our most important coalition partner, the United States," he said in an interview.
Support has also come in from Schröder’s junior coalition partner, the once strongly pacifist Greens. On Monday, Greens defense expert Angelika Beer said her party was in favor of extending the Afghanistan mandate beyond Kabul. She pointed towards the recent bombing on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, and said the focus should be on providing civil reconstruction teams with adequate security cover. Terrorists, she said, were concentrating ever more on "soft targets."
Germans a key player in Afghanistan
With 2,500 soldiers based in Kabul, Germans form the largest contingent of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul under U.N. mandate. Germany together with the Netherlands was in joint command of the force for the past six months till NATO took over on August 1.
The Germans, who hosted the first conference on Afghanistan’s future after the ousting of the Taliban last year, have played a key role in stabilizing the Afghan capital, aiding reconstruction efforts and in training the local police and army.
Accordingly, the chances are good German troops will move to Kunduz, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Kabul, to protect reconstruction teams working in the region.
Kunduz deployment too dangerous?
But critics are fearful of the security implications of such an operation. With reports of continuing skirmishes from the volatile outlying regions of Afghanistan, the move to Kunduz is considered by some as too dangerous. Several German soldiers have already been killed during peacekeeping in Kabul.
Others believe Schröder’s government simply want to score points with the United States by extending the Afghanistan mandate, after a dramatic souring of relations in the wake of U.S. President Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq.
Bernhard Gertz, head of the German Armed Forces Association, said on Monday the anti-terror fight in Afghanistan should be intensified, but ruled out sending troops to Kunduz. He said just 7,000 German soldiers were deployed worldwide for the fight against terror that "only takes place sporadically." He stressed the security situation in Afghanistan had "worsened dramatically" and added it made no sense to send more peacekeepers there under such conditions.