Comment by the ISAF chief in Afghanistan on Germany's role in the war-torn region has sparked debate among top politicians on where its future tasks should lie. The opposition has called for a full withdrawal by 2015.
Soldiers should get out of their vehicles more often, McChrystal says
The commander of international forces in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal, said German troops needed to establish more contact with the people. Otherwise, the soldiers - though physically present - were "essentially irrelevant," he said in an interview with the mass circulation daily Bild Zeitung published Wednesday.
Germany's defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said McChrystal was naming the reality soldiers faced.
"I don't see it as criticism, but rather as a description of the reality confronting the international community," Guttenberg told reporters in Berlin. "When he speaks about risks, then that is also a reality. Our soldiers are exposed to high risks every day."
Guttenberg did not comment on whether the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, would begin more patrols on foot in the future. His predecessor, Franz Josef Jung, had ordered several years ago that German soldiers only be allowed to leave their camps in armored vehicles. This had been a reaction to increased attacks on Bundeswehr troops.
Opposition wants full withdrawal
Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentary group, said ending Germany's activities in Afghanistan should be tied to the reduction of the US presence there. President Barack Obama has said the US will begin reducing its military activities in Afghanistan from 2011.
"We shouldn't lag behind," Steinmeier told the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. "The withdrawal of German soldiers should also begin in 2011. We have to now completely hand over the reasonably calm districts to the Afghans."
Steinmeier said further steps should then be taken with other European countries.
"We have to come to an agreement with our most significant European partners to end our military commitment there between 2013 and 2015," he said. This was "ambitious, but realistic."
Some 40,000 more troops are due to arrive in Afghanistan from the US and its NATO allies in 2010
But Defense Minister Guttenberg said he disagreed.
"I think nothing of a finish date," Guttenberg said. This would play into the hands of those who wanted to "switch off the lights" in Afghanistan again.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also rejected demands for a speedy withdrawal of German troops.
"The international community cannot afford to let this country make a false step or even fall," Westerwelle said. "Whoever would hastily leave Afghanistan now would leave millions of people in the lurch and send many of them to a certain death at the hands of Taliban executioners."
Karzai to visit Berlin
Karzai and Merkel met in Berlin last year, too
Germany currently has 4,300 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. An international conference in London on January 28 will deliberate the future of the international engagement.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she will present to parliament in the coming week a government policy statement on Germany's plans.
German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said Afghan President Hamid Karzai will stop in Berlin next week on his way to the London conference. Karzai is expected to meet the German leader and parliamentarians.
Justifying more troops
The SPD has indicated it would not block an increase in troops.
"If the government can precisely justify what additional efforts additional soldiers will bring, then it is certainly reasonable," SPD defense expert Rainer Arnold told the newspaper Rheinische Merkur. "A couple of hundred soldiers more can hardly be called a militarization of German foreign policy."
However, Arnold did not put a figure on how many more soldiers the SPD would support.
Editor: Susan Houlton