German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has landed in northern Afghanistan for an unannounced troop visit. Her second trip comes months before German soldiers are set to withdraw from the country.
Ursula von der Leyen touched down on Wednesday morning at the military base in Mazar-i-Sharif, home to the majority of the roughly 2,400 German Bundeswehr troops still stationed in Afghanistan. With the NATO-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan set to conclude at the end of the year, and considerable uncertainty over what comes next, von der Leyen sought to assure the troops of an orderly international solution.
"For us the same basic principle still applies: We went into Afghanistan as an alliance, and we will withdraw as an alliance," von der Leyen said. "The most important thing now is that we can collectively protect the successes we have achieved."
The 46 countries providing troops in Afghanistan are in the process of bringing them home, with ISAF's combat mandate expiring at the end of the year.
A contingent of roughly 12,000 foreign soldiers, providing training and support for Afghan security forces, is expected to remain at least until the end of 2016, but only if their presence is approved by the country's next president.
Future mission hanging in balance
Afghans voted in a runoff presidential election in June. The election commission named former finance minister Ashraf Ghani the winner. However, Abdullah Abdullah challenged the results. Both presidential hopefuls agreed to a full recount of all votes when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited to try to broker a solution. Current President Hamid Karzai has reached term limit and cannot seek a third stint in office.
Von der Leyen called on both candidates not to disrupt the recount and to follow the process they have now agreed upon.
"This is also a question of respect for the Afghan voters, who showed great courage in raising their voices," von der Leyen said, a reference to Talilban calls for an election boycott and threats of attacks on voting day.
Von der Leyen, who took over the defense portfolio at the end of last year, made her first trip to Afghanistan days after taking office, around the Christmas holidays. As usual, von der Leyen's visit was not made public in advance for security reasons.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains tense, the Taliban claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a suicide bomb attack near Kabul International Airport, days after six Taliban fighters launched an audacious attack on the heavily guarded civilian and military airport in the capital. Afghan officials said a total of 27 people died in attacks around the country on Tuesday, with more than 70 killed in the three previous days.
Behind the US and the UK, Germany is the third-largest provider of soldiers in Afghanistan.
msh/dr (AFP, dpa)