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Escalating Violence Puts German Peacekeepers on Edge

DW staff (sp)May 31, 2006

The flare-up of violence in Afghanistan comes at a bad time for German soldiers preparing to take over the international peacekeeping force ISAF this week. But the German defense minister wants to keep the troops there.

Kabul witnessed some of the worst violence since the fall of the TalibanImage: AP

Around four and a half years after their first deployment in Afghanistan, the German army or Bundeswehr faces a new challenge this week when it takes over command of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for the whole of northern Afghanistan on June 1.

The timing couldn't have been worse. Over the past few days, Afghanistan has been wracked by some of the worst violence seen since US-led forces toppled the Taliban regime end of 2001.

Schwere Ausschreitungen in Kabul, Afghanistan nach Zusammenstoß von US-Militärkonvois mit Zivilfahrzeugen
Kabul witnessed some severe rioting this weekImage: AP

At least 14 people were killed in rioting that gripped the capital Kabul Monday after a US military truck slammed into civilian cars, killing around five people. Fighting has also escalated between coalition soldiers and militants from the ousted Taliban regime in the country's south. On Tuesday, fresh reports said armed men shot dead an Afghan man and three women working with international aid group ActionAid.

But German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung is adamant that despite rising tensions, German troops will remain in Afghanistan.

Speaking to German public broadcaster ARD on Wednesday, Jung said he was concerned about recent developments in the country, but that it was all the more necessary to leave peacekeepers there. "We need more security there," Jung said.

"We have to be very alert"

In comparison to the volatile south of the country, the situation in northern Afghanistan is relatively peaceful. The Taliban and their allies are mostly active in southern and eastern areas, although militants have carried out attacks in some parts of the north too during the past year. The Taliban have declared a holy war against the government, US-led coalition forces, and aid workers, and have killed dozens of relief workers in the past.

But the recent upsurge in violence has put the estimated 1,400 German peacekeepers in the country on edge. The German army has described the situation in the country as "clearly not peaceful and stable."

Bundeswehr Afghanistan Camp Warehouse in Kabul
A German army tank in KabulImage: AP

"Overall we have to be very, very alert, probably more alert than we have been so far," General Markus Kneip, the future ISAF commander for northern Afghanistan told German news agency dpa.

In recent months, the 9,000-strong NATO troops drawn from 39 countries, have been the target of a string of attacks, even in the north of the country. Last week, a massive explosion in the province of Kunduz tore through a tank belonging to the German army. However, no one was injured. But a bomb attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, the future headquarters of German troops in northern Afghanistan, last November killed a Swedish ISAF peacekeeper.

Germany also paid a high price for its deployment in Afghanistan at the beginning of the mission when it lost 18 soldiers in a bomb attack in December 2001.

Mission fraught with dangers

There's little doubt that the Bundeswehr's future mission in Afghanistan will be fraught with dangers.

Mazar-i-Sharif and its surroundings are home to some of the country's biggest poppy plantations, from which heroin is extracted. A combination of drug-related crimes and the presence of warring gang lords in the region are expected to keep the troops busy.

In addition, the future Bundeswehr military camp in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the biggest outside of Germany, is expected to be an obvious target for insurgents.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is bolstering troops in AfghanistanImage: AP

In an attempt to boost troop morale in the face of mounting violence, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Tuesday that the success of the alliance's stabilization mission in Afghanistan was "vital."

"Afghanistan remains our number one priority, and it is absolutely vital, both for the people of Afghanistan and for NATO, that we are successful," he said in a speech to the NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in Paris.