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Missiles Strike as Germany Takes On Peacekeeping Duties in Afghanistan

February 10, 2003

Germany and the Netherlands assumed the commando of the ISAF security force in Kabul on Monday. A rocket attack near the German camp shortly after the hand-over ceremony emphasized the instability of the situation there.

Germany and the Netherlands: In charge of peace in KabulImage: AP

German Defense Minister Peter Struck's visit to Kabul on Monday for the transfer of peacekeeping duties there from Turkey to Germany and the Netherlands was interrupted by two missiles which exploded near the German camp in the Afghan capital just hours after the handover.

While neither people nor property were damaged, the attack proved that comments Struck had made earlier in the day were premature

"I don’t see any reason to assume that the soldiers and I will be in danger," the Defense Minister had said.

The two missiles struck around 500 meters (500 yards) away from the German camp. The German authorities in Afghanistan are investigating the incident.

Change at the helm of ISAF

Germany and the Netherlands have agreed to share responsibilities for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in and around Kabul for the next six months.

Der deutsche Verteidigungsminister Peter Struck in Kabul
Defense Minister Peter Struck shortly before the hand-over in KabulImage: AP

Struck (photo) said that he expects the foreign peacekeepers to leave Afghanistan after the next Afghan elections, scheduled for 2004. Stabile structures will allow "the presence of foreign troops and the Bundeswehr to be brought to an end," the minister said.

However, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently indicated that the Bundeswehr could be in Afghanistan much longer.

Successor up in the air

It is still unclear who will take ISAF’s reigns over after the Germans and Dutch finish their tour. Struck said that the Bundeswehr would remain in the country until September at the latest.

On Monday he conferred with Afghan President Hamid Karsai about the issue, suggesting that NATO could assume the leadership of ISAF in autumn 2003. After their meeting Karsai announced that Afghanistan would be happy with anyone. Struck later announced that he and his Dutch counterpart, Henk Kamp, will discuss the issue with NATO.

Mission won't be easy

During the handover ceremony Defense Minister Struck affirmed that the mission in Afghanistan is the greatest challenge the Bundeswehr has yet faced. While the Germans have already committed 1,400 soldiers to the peacekeeping operation, 1,100 more will be added to the mission under German-Dutch leadership. The Netherlands has sent 700 soldiers to support the undertaking.

Übernahme der ISAF durch deutsche und holländische Truppen
German Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst (right) applauds after a speech given by U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi (left) during the ISAF hand-over ceremony.Image: AP

General Norbert van Heyst (photo), who has until now led the German-Dutch corps in Münster, is ISAF’s new commander. The German troops are headed by General Friedrich Riechmann, the commander of the German deployment in Potsdam.

"Our military capabilities are limited," General Riechmann told DW-RADIO. After all some 10,000 Bundeswehr soldiers are involved in peacekeeping operations all over the world at present. That’s why we’re happy that the Dutch were prepared to take over part of the responsibility. That’s one of the most important prerequisites. We couldn’t have shouldered the responsibility alone," he said.

Complex responsibilities

General Riechmann will lead the troops, which come from 30 nations, while acting as the contact person for the Afghan government as well as for the United Nations and other aid organizations.

Riechmann is also expected to keep in touch with the U.S. army, which, though not involved in the peacekeeping exercises, is still engaged in combat in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Bundeswehr is responsible for security at the international airport in Kabul, where riots and skirmishes have taken place in the past.

Mission fraught with dangers

Security is the main issue as the 2,500 Bundeswehr soldiers on the ground will have to cope with an unsafe environment. Strict security precautions were taken for the ceremony on Monday. The German foreign intelligence service had warned of possible attacks on the German camp and German soldiers before the ISAF leadership handover.

The missile attack near the German camp in Kabul on Monday is only the most recent in a series of incidents. In January three missiles struck near the German camp, though no one was injured. In December, seven Bundeswehr and two Dutch soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash caused by machine failure.

Before Struck’s departure for Kabul he announced there were indications of increased terrorist activities by armed Taliban fighters and followers of the fundamentalist military leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Sceptical of extension

The Afghan government would like to see ISAF’s area of responsibilities extended beyond Kabul and vicinity, an idea that the United States is said to be considering. But Germany maintains that it does not have the capacity to enlarge its area of responsibility.

"That’s definitely a question of how much manpower we have," General Riechmann told DW-RADIO. "We Germans would not be in a position to undertake such a mission, and even the other nations couldn’t. That’s why I think that the principle of building a ‘safe haven’ in Kabul as a source from which to develop a new law and order system is the best way."