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Germany

Opposition blasts visit to Afghanistan by defense minister and wife

German Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan with his wife Stephanie on Monday. Opposition politicians are calling the trip a PR stunt intended to lift their popularity.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

It was Guttenberg's seventh visit to Afghanistan

The Green party is the latest to join a chorus of opposition criticism after German Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg and his wife Stephanie flew to Afghanistan on Monday on an unannounced troop visit.

The leader of the Green parliamentary party, Juergen Trittin, said "a staged spectacle like this in one of the worst conflict zones of the world can barely be beaten for tastelessness."

Trittin said Guttenberg had gone beyond the scope of his office with this "PR stunt." He said Guttenberg should instead have explained to the German soldiers how long they still had to risk their lives "rather than using them as the backdrop for a personality show."

He also criticized the minister’s television appearance on the public broadcaster ZDF, scheduled to air on Thursday night.

Show of support

Guttenberg said the trip, his seventh to Afghanistan and the first ever made by a German foreign minister and his wife, was meant as a show of support for the troops. The couple visited German soldiers at the Masar-i-Scharif and Kunduz bases.

"It's very important that especially in the Christmas season, we show the support and appreciation for those who are doing such a tough job, thousands of kilometers away from home," he said.

Guttenberg has himself received support from members of the coalition government. CSU politician Hans-Peter Friedrich said that Guttenberg had sent an "important signal." He described media reactions to the visit as "unfriendly," saying that the soldiers had seen it very differently.

In particular, he noted the enthusiasm with which Guttenberg’s wife was received by the soldiers.

Stefanie zu Guttenberg

Stefanie zu Guttenberg wanted to meet with female soldiers in particular

Stephanie zu Guttenberg, 34, first visited a field hospital and later met with women soldiers. Her joining the trip was intended as a gesture to show that the military mission had far more than just political backing, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The ministry also said she paid her own way.

In addition to the troop visitations, the Guttenbergs recorded the segment for a TV talk show with a group of German soldiers for ZDF.

Withdrawal to begin in 2012

Guttenberg described the fighting in the country as "harder and longer than in previous winters," but added that in recent months, some progress had been made. And he said it was important for him to get clear picture of the realities of the situation on the ground.

The current mandate for German troops deployed in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is set to expire in February 2011, but the mission is expected to be extended by parliament.

But there are signs that support for the military mission is on the decline. Opposition parties have threatened to withdraw their support in the Bundestag unless the government agrees to move forward the start of a gradual pullout of German troops. The current plan is for the pullout of Germany's soldiers to begin in 2012.

Stephanie and Karl zu Guttenberg with troops

The Guttenbergs are often called the 'German Kennedys' for their youth and charm

Popular support waning

The military mission in Afghanistan appears to have little public support within Germany, with the majority of people being in favor of a quick withdrawal. In a recent poll conducted for ZDF, 70 percent of the respondents said they were in favor of a quick pullout.

Currently there are around 5,000 Bundeswehr personnel stationed in Afghanistan, which makes it the third strongest ISAF contingent after the United States and Britain.

Guttenberg is travelling with a large delegation that also includes two German state premiers and a talk show host, who is to record the latest edition of his television program in Afghanistan, with Guttenberg and several soldiers as guests.

Authors: Andrew Bowen, Andreas Illmer (AFP, dpa, apn)
Editor: Rob Turner

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