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Germany to Take Over Peacekeeping in Afghanistan

In a significant reminder of its international duties, German peacekeepers in Afghanistan will take over the ISAF security force in Kabul on Feb. 10. German General Riechmann told DW-RADIO about the challenges in store.


Mission fraught with risks -- Germany will keep the peace in Kabul

Take charge of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Kabul? "No thanks, that’s too much for us" -- that was the common response from Berlin despite repeated requests from the Afghan government over the last year.

The German reluctance to take charge of peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan saw first Britain and then Turkey steer the multinational peacekeeping force through its early difficult phase.

But now in a change of heart, the Germans have decided to risk taking over the responsibility for six months, both politically and militarily.

Change at the helm of ISAF

On Feb. 10, the German Bundeswehr -- whose Afghanistan mandate was extended by a year last December by parliament and whose strength was increased to a maximum of 2,500 soldiers -- will split the responsibility with the Netherlands.

Turkey will hand over the ISAF reins to Germany and the Netherlands in a festive ceremony on Monday in Kabul. German Defense Minister Peter Struck as well as his Dutch counterpart, Henk Kamp are expected to participate in the ceremony.

General Norbert van Heyst, who led the German-Dutch corps in the German city of Münster so far, will become the new commander of the ISAF. The German side will be headed by General Friedrich Riechmann, the commander of the German deployment in Potsdam.

Mission won't be easy says General

General Riechmann, who will be the key link between the German defense ministry in Berlin and the commander of the ISAF, says the mission won’t be an easy one.

"Our military capabilities are limited," he told DW-RADIO. After all some 10,000 Bundeswehr soldiers are involved in peacekeeping operations all over the world at present.

"That’s why we’re happy that the Dutch were prepared to take over part of the responsibility --that’s one of the most important prerequisites. We couldn’t have shouldered the responsibility alone," he said.

Complex responsibilities for German General

General Riechmann expects the new duties to be complex because he will not just lead the troops who come from 30 nations, but will also be the contact person for the Afghan government -- which is strongly reliant on the ISAF -- as well as for the United Nations and other aid organizations.

Riechmann is also expected to keep in touch with the U.S. army, which though not involved in the peacekeeping troops, is still engaged in combat in Afghanistan. The German Bundeswehr is also responsible for the security at the international airport in Kabul, which has been witness to riots and skirmishes in the past.

"The point is that it’s a very complex challenge that we have to rise up to, one that demands a lot of High Tech above all. And all that first has to be transported there," the General said.

In a major logistical operation, about 80 planes with massive transport containers will be needed to transport material such as wireless equipment some 5000 kilometers outside of Kabul.

Mission fraught with dangers

Security will also be a big issue as the 2,5000 Bundeswehr soldiers on the ground will have to cope with an unsafe environment.

Recent reports of missile attacks in the vicinity of the German camp in Kabul, warnings of further attacks especially in the case of a military strike in Iraq and the death of 9 Bundeswehr soldiers in a helicopter crash last December have underlined the fact that Afghanistan remains far from a stable and peaceful place.

Just before his departure to Kabul on Sunday, German Defense Minister Struck pointed towards the security risks involved for the German troops in Afghanistan. He said the situation was "highly dangerous".

According to Struck, there are indications of increased terrorist activities by armed Taliban fighters and followers of the fundamentalist military leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Struck also said in a newspaper interview that Luna reconnaissance planes would be transported from the Balkans to Kabul to increase the protection of German soldiers.

General Riechmann is also worried about security problems. "The situation in uncertain. The problems aren’t over as yet, but we’re on high alert, well trained and equipped," he said.

Replying to a question about whether he doubts the very purpose of the mission, the General is clear that he doesn’t. "No, I don’t doubt at all. So much good has come out of it (peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan so far), so much has been developed that one mustn’t stray from the path that we’ve chalked out," he said.

Riechmann says that peace maintaining operations are on in full swing in Kabul, but believes that extending the mission to the entire country is impossible.

"That’s definitely a question of how much manpower we have. We Germans would not be in a position to undertake such a mission and even the other nations couldn’t. That’s why I think that the principle of building a "safe haven" in Kabul as a source from which to develop a new law and order system, is the best way," he told DW-RADIO.

Future of ISAF uncertain

The General is uncertain how long the Bundeswehr deployment will last in Afghanistan. "That’s a difficult question to which I have no answer. We’re going to be here to start with," he said.

Germany will take over the ISAF for six months along with the Netherlands. None of the other nations have so far evinced interest in taking over the helm after Germany’s run is over. General Riechmann hopes much like German Defense Minister Peter Struck that the NATO would take over responsibility of the ISAF thereafter.

Defense Minister Struck, who will be meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karsai in Kabul, plans to discuss the issue with him. The minister indicated before his departure on Sunday that there was acceptance for the proposal of NATO taking over ISAF later in his discussions with his counterparts from several other countries as well as with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.

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