As US and Afghan forces launched a major offensive against Taliban insurgents in Helmand province, Germany's parliament has voted to expand Berlin's own involvement in Afghanistan.
The Hindukush mountains of Afghanistan are a refuge for Taliban insurgents
The German Bundestag has approved the deployment of a contingent of some 300 German support personnel to help man AWACS surveillance aircraft. The overwhelming majority, with 461 of 557 voting in favor, came after Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats agreed to the mission two weeks ago.
The deployment of three or four airborne surveillance aircraft was requested by NATO defense ministers at a meeting in Brussels early last month to help coordinate early warning efforts against a growing Taliban insurgency.
German soldiers will crew and provide maintenance for the airborne warning and control system planes (AWACS), each with a mushroom-shaped radar pod attached to the top of the aircraft. Crew duties will mainly entail the supervision of military air traffic.
AWACS can pick out objects as far away as 500 kilometers (300 miles) and monitor an area of some 300,000 square kilometers (117,000 sq. mi.) at one time.
The planes will probably be sent from the Geilenkirchen airbase on the Dutch-German border to a forward NATO base in Turkey.
AWACS are a very versatile spy plane
Jung: 'Planes have no missile-guidance capacity'
Critics have complained, however, that the mission adds a new quality to German involvement in Afghanistan. They argue that the AWACS can easily be used to find targets and actively guide military attack operations against them.
But Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung bluntly rejected that criticism, saying the mission instead "demonstrated the high price we pay so that we can live in peace and freedom in Germany."
Defending the use of the planes, Jung said "the planes will coordinate all the traffic over Afghanistan, but they have no missile-guidance or ground logistics capacity, and therefore cannot be used specifically for any weapons-related operations."
Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament that "enormous difficulties and challenges" lay ahead for the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan, as the country prepares for a presidential election in August amid a growing number of Islamist attacks.
Since Berlin's troop deployment began in 2002, thirty-five German soldiers have died in Afghanistan. Germany has about 3,800 soldiers stationed there, serving with the 65,000-strong NATO-led ISAF force, which includes troops from 42 countries.
Germany has a parliamentary mandate to send up to 4,500 troops to Afghanistan, but further military involvement has become a sensitive political issue in the run-up to Germany's September general election.
Editor: Michael Lawton