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Germany

German Parliament Approves Extra Troops for Afghanistan

Germany's lower house of parliament voted on Thursday to increase the number of troops Berlin can send to Afghanistan by 1,000 soldiers and extended the mission's mandate by 14 months.

Afghan men look on as German ISAF soldiers patrol mountain villages

The extra troops raises the total number of German soldiers in Afghanistan to 4,500

A majority of 442 lawmakers voted to support a proposal by Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition to extend Berlin's participation in a NATO-led peacekeeping mission, which currently includes just over 50,000 soldiers.

96 parliamentarians voted against and 32 abstained. Under a previous parliamentary mandate, Germany was allowed to send up to 3,500 troops to Afghanistan. The vote on Thursday increases that number to 4,500. The mandate is valid for 14 months.

Troop morale at a low

The vote comes at a time when morale among German troops in Afghanistan is low as they face increased attacks from a resurgent Taliban.

Five years ago, when the German army began its mission in northern Afghanistan, the region was regarded as one of the country's safest. Now, the solders run the daily risk of "being caught in an explosive or being shot at," one officer said.

During the last year, the security situation has deteriorated not only in the north, but all across Afghanistan.

The Afghan presidential election, likely to shape the country's future for years to come, is scheduled around autumn 2009, making a further escalation of violence in the coming year more than likely.

As voter registration started last week, Taliban spokesman Kari Jussif Ahmadi warned the population against registering, saying it was a "waste of time," as the militants were set to prevent the election from happening.

"More than half of the country is in our hands, and we will not let it happen," he said.

Added danger posed by upcoming election

While the Taliban are unlikely to prevent the polls -- they failed to do so in 2004 despite grand announcements to the contrary -- they are believed to be strong enough to severely disrupt the run-up to the election.

The international community has made it clear that securing the election will be one of the most important tasks in 2009.

The German troops within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will also play a role in the training of Afghan security forces, a process that must be speeded up after being promoted too timidly for a long time.

There is no doubt that this will be dangerous. Even today, the duty of the 4,500 German soldiers is a far cry from the beginning of the mission, when ISAF troops really were peacekeepers.

German army priest Stephan Schmuck speaks to soldiers in Kunduz, Afghanistan during a commemoration service for a German soldier who was killed in an attack on German ISAF soldiers

Soldiers' deaths have changed the way troops view their mission

Soldiers at the German camp in the northern province of Kunduz nicknamed the full moon "rocket weather," because of the many attacks raining down on them by moonlight.

In September, a German soldier was killed in an attack.

"You have an odd feeling when you leave the camp on a mission," said an officer, who did not want to give his name. "It sensitizes you, but also creates a distance to the population. Just being present, just walking down to the bazaar, like we did two, three years ago, that's not possible anymore."

Little support on the home front

Other soldiers believe that the German population does not appreciate their work, which only makes headline news when attacks occur.

"The soldiers want more interest in Germany, and that there is not just focus (on them) when something happens," the German Bundeswehr in Afghanistan said in a statement.

"More appreciation of the efforts here would be welcome, after all soldiers here can die for Germany," the army said.

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