German Defense Minister Peter Struck flies to Afghanistan this weekend to visit the Bundeswehr's Kunduz reconstruction team for the first time since its mandate was expanded from Kabul last year.
Struck (white shirt) at a previous visit to Afghanistan.
On Saturday, Germany’s Secretary of Defense Peter Struck will visit the German soldiers of the Bundeswehr’s regional reconstruction team (PRT) in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.
It is the first time the defense chief has visited the recently deployed troops since the German Bundestag agreed the expansion of the Bundeswehr’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mandate outside Kabul in October.
The decision has been praised and criticized in equal measure. Struck will see for himself this weekend if the deployment is a brave attempt at setting an example for other nations to assist in the rebuilding of Afghanistan or if the dangers and the immensity of the task will doom the ambitious mission to failure.
At the moment, 230 German troops are in Kunduz. By the summer, their number is expected to increase to 300.
Many problems in a vast region
Although peace keepers, German troops are on full alert in Kabul.
The German troops face there face problems unique to their location and mandate. Kunduz dominates a vast and remote part of Afghanistan, a long way from any rapid assistance.
Also, with a deployment area the size of German states Hessen and Bavaria put together, the operation finds itself spread over a gigantic area littered with bandits, warlords and resurgent Taliban.
Despite the hazards, the Germans have been welcomed and first contacts with the local population have been cordial and have gone without any major hitches.
"Up to now, the experiences of our soldiers in Kunduz have been positive ones,” said Struck in a statement. “They have not been a target of hatred and have not faced resistance from the population there and we hope that this will remain so.”
Apparent stability raises questions
This comes as little surprise to those members of the Bundestag who have watched the developments. The reason that Kunduz was approved, some say, was for just that reason. The situation there is relatively stable. However, critics of the deployment have quoted this as the exact reason for their opposition. The presence of foreign soldiers -- and particularly German soldiers – in Kunduz is not required and further still, not desired.
Struck has defended the decision, saying that although things are calm in Kunduz at the moment, the presence of the Bundeswehr may well be welcomed if their mandate was forced to change from reconstruction to protection.
Dangers of association with Enduring Freedom
ISAF or Enduring Freedom? Most Afghans can't see a difference.
Above all, the defense ministry is concerned about the possibility of riots as the Afghan elections approach. In addition, with thousands of U.S. and British troops still engaged in active service against remnants of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters across the country in operations under the "Enduring Freedom" banner, the Germans in Kunduz cannot rely on Afghans distinguishing between the war on terror and reconstruction.
The PRT is the only international reconstruction team that does not operate under the "Enduring Freedom" flag. The German troops are the only reconstruction deployment under the command of the ISAF, and ultimately NATO. One critic, the liberal politician Werner Hoyer, is concerned that the people in Afghanistan rarely see the distinction.
"Many will see that the operation (of the PRT), taken under the ISAF mandate, as part of Enduring Freedom. This, I say, is an absolute real danger,” Hoyer told reporters.
Recent losses show fluidity of situation
Despite efforts to explain the role of the ISAF through mediation with tribal leaders, officials from the foreign office and interior ministry realize the distinction between protection and offensive action is still causing great danger. Only this week, a Canadian and a British soldier were killed in separate attacks on peace keeping forces.
"Such recent events, of course, force us to change our alert levels,” said Struck. “But it would be wrong to give up and to go back home. Our task is still to guarantee the stability of the country."
Brave stand or proud mistake?
It remains a question what the deployment in Kunduz can ultimately achieve: In the whole country, there are just eight regional reconstruction teams.
At present, there are still no signs that other European countries will send reconstruction teams and thus, essential parts of Afghanistan will continue to be isolated. It is the decision of the German government to go ahead without more consensus from the EU that has Hoyer ruing what he sees as a big mistake.
“Now, liaison officers and a few soldiers are sent to Kunduz, but this makes no sense,” he said. “What would make sense would be to spread all over the country."