After a debate in the Bundestag Thursday, German lawmakers agreed to extend the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan by another year despite increasing unease surrounding the safety of the troops, the deteriorating security situation and the potential overstretch of the German military.
Currently leading the NATO mission in the relatively calm north of Afghanistan, the Bundeswehr reconstruction mission of 2,900 troops -- almost the full quota of 3,000 soldiers set by parliament -- will stay for another twelve months when the current mandate runs out in October after lawmakers voted 492 to 71, with nine abstentions.
This follows the approval of the deployment of 2,400 troops to Lebanon last Wednesday, a mission which makes history by taking German forces into the heart of the Middle East, one of Germany's biggest post-war taboos given the country's past with Israel.
Despite the approval of the extended mandate, there will be no extra funding for the mission after the finance ministry rejected the demands of the defense ministry for more money to support its operations.
Despite reports, the Bundestag ruled out sending troops to the mainly lawless south to support British, Dutch and Canadian forces, who are facing attacks from the resurgent Taliban.
There was some doubt as to whether the mandate would be extended as fears had been raised by a number of prominent German diplomats and politicians.
Political unease left extension in doubt
A leaked statement from the German ambassador in Kabul Wednesday citing the worsening situation in the failed Central Asian state and similar concerns from an increasing number of politicians across the German political spectrum, was just the latest comment to put the extension doubt.
Hans-Ulrich Seidt, the German ambassador in Afghanistan, was quoted in a report in the Bild Zeitung tabloid as saying that he was "extremely pessimistic" about the security situation in the country and that it was entirely possible that the Afghan government could lose control in the next 12 to 18 months. This, he said, would see Afghanistan plunged into chaos and the ISAF faced with dealing with an expanded war across the whole country.
Unease was also expressed not only by members of the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green party -- usually Germany's conscience in foreign military matters -- but also sections of the ruling coalition parties of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Cross-party concern for future of mandate
With the security situation in Afghanistan being described as the worst since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the safety of the approximately 3,000 German soldiers currently deployed in the country is becoming increasingly threatened.
Conservative Willy Wimmer, assistant secretary in the defense ministry, called for a new draft for the mandate which would not commit Germany's troops to missions where they would be in danger.
Fellow conservative Peter Gauweiler from the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), said the application for an extension was "too risky" and that the mandate had basically failed. "The conflict in Afghanistan cannot be won," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The SPD parliamentary faction's number two, Walter Kolbow, disagreed that the mission had failed but told the Saarbrücker Zeitung that there were concerns and that 2007 "would be a key year" in the conflict and the future of German troops in Afghanistan.
Unofficial plans to deploy German troops south
The German government was also under pressure ahead of the parliamentary debate after the Financial Times Deutschland quoted a leaked report that it was considering extending the Bundeswehr mission in the south of Afghanistan.
At the moment, the focus of the mission is to rebuild infrastructure and offer support to the northern regions. There was no official government confirmation or denial regarding the report.
Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung had previously rejected calls for the Bundeswehr to be further deployed in the south of the country before the decision not to expand the mission was made.
"The fact is we have assumed control of the north and have come to an agreement with the international community regarding that," Jung told German broadcaster ZDF's "Morgenmagazin" program on Thursday.
"We have carried out our mission as agreed, we have made our contribution, and I think we should continue with this in the future," he added.
NATO boss sees southern mission as mistake
That view was also held by NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who has said it would be wrong for the German contingent to move south and leave the north open. The north, despite the reconstruction efforts of the German army, is still under threat due to its proximity to the tribal lands in the Hindu Kush which offer Taliban and al-Qaida operatives refuge. If the Bundeswehr deployed to the south it would leave a job undone and a region vulnerable, de Hoop Scheffer has said.
Jung made it clear that German forces were in Afghanistan purely for reconstruction reasons and any pressure to change the mandate that would be wrong. "People must understand that we are not there as a member of the occupying forces but are there to help in the reconstruction of the country."
NATO agrees on military expansion
Meanwhile, NATO ambassadors agreed Thursday to extend military operations into eastern Afghanistan by the end of the year, thereby taking responsibility for the whole country, diplomats said.
"The formal decision to move to the fourth and final stage of deployment for the International Security Assistance Force was taken without any particular problems," at NATO HQ in Brussels, the source said.
Stage three saw NATO take command in July, mainly through British, Dutch and Canadian troops, of international operations in the Taliban militia's southern heartland around the city of Kandahar and down to the Pakistan border.
The final phase -- stage four -- essentially involves transferring around 10,000 US troops from the coalition involved in Operation Enduring Freedom to ISAF control and could be completed very quickly.