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Troops in Afghanistan

DW staff / dpa (sms)
October 6, 2006

Violence in Afghanistan as well as the possibility of having to take on more dangerous missions is threatening Germany's hopes of restoring normality in the country through a recipe of public safety and reconstruction.

German ISAF troops in Afghanistan
German troops are considering using more heavily armored vehiclesImage: AP

With 2,800 of its soldiers deployed in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul and northern Afghanistan, Germany has thus far refused to be drawn into ISAF's growing role of doing battle with the Taliban in the south and southeast of the country.

Instead of engaging in military action, the Germans have focused their work on public safety and reconstruction through the use of "provincial reconstruction teams" in the cities of Kunduz and Faizabad.

German soldiers were assigned to foot patrols, trudging through the dusty streets of Faizabad, chatting with the locals as planners remained anxious to avoid upsetting Afghans with any overt displays of military force.

Ayesha Khan, an associate fellow at the British think-tank Chatham House, said the Germans have been very successful in the areas where they have been engaged.

Foot patrols becoming more vulnerable

NATO soliders in Afghanistan
South and southeast Afghanistan have proved more dangerous than the northImage: AP

"They have maintained a peacekeeping role and did not engage in combat operations and the war on terror," she said. "They have clear rules of engagement about what the troops can do."

Some of the gentle touch has now gone, amid concerns that foot-soldiers are too vulnerable to suicide attack. Berlin has instructed the troops to use armored vehicles during forays outside their well-fortified camps.

Currently the troops use lighter armored personnel carriers on wheels, but commanders have requested that heavier Marder infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) be stockpiled at a new German base in Mazar-i-Sharif.

"If ISAF changes its role to counter-insurgency, it can't be engaged (in the same way) in peacekeeping," Khan said, describing the risk posed to troops.

Fear of losing support at home

While German officers worry that their profile among the Afghan public will suffer if they join in the war, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung are concerned public support in Germany for the deployment may evaporate.

A British solider on patrol in Kabul
NATO took over command of all forces in Afghanistan this weekImage: AP

At the end of September, the deployment won a fresh authorization until Oct. 13, 2007 from Germany's parliament.

So far, Germany has suffered 18 personnel killed in Afghanistan, 12 of them in accidents. Major casualties, however, could lead to calls to bring the troops home and abandon Afghanistan to its fate.

The Afghan deployment is the biggest of several German peacekeeping operations in the world. Until the 1990s, modern Germany kept out of peacekeeping missions, but gradually accepted that it had to help, in line with its world diplomatic and economic influence.

NATO command could alter German deployment

For part of 2003, the Germans were in charge of ISAF and made up the largest single nationality in its ranks. At that stage, ISAF was mainly a peacekeeping force, leaving fighting to the American and British-led "Operation Enduring Freedom."

ISAF, under NATO command, has become a different creature, blooded in major ground combat with the Taliban in the south and having just officially absorbed 12,000 US troops Thursday, growing to a total strength of 32,000 five years after the first bombs fell to drive out the Taliban government.

British patrol on streets of Kabul
A new response force could be deployed to any part of AfghanistanImage: AP

Currently the Germans are keeping their distance from ISAF's new role by remaining in the relatively peaceful north.

Sources familiar with the Defense Ministry say there are now concerns that NATO may draw German troops into the war through a new unit, the NATO Response Force (NRF), which will comprise 25,000 men in Europe, trained to be deployable with just five days notice.

Germany is to provide up to 6,600 of the soldiers and NATO supreme allied commander James Jones hopes to declare it operable at the end of next month during the NATO summit in the Latvian capital Riga.

Berlin wants to be sure that it will not be called to assist struggling NATO forces in the south of Afghanistan.

The only German soldiers in Afghanistan currently courting hostile contact are in a special-forces unit. Berlin does not discuss its activities, but the US European Command says one of the Germans was nearly killed last year by an enemy bomb while on patrol.

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