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Steinmeier Reasserts Germany's Pledge to Afghanistan

DW staff (nda)August 21, 2006

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier began his first visit to Afghanistan by urging the international community not to forget the war-torn country and reiterating Germany's own commitment.

Germany's main mission is reconstruction but increased attacks have put troops on alertImage: AP

Considering the recent upsurge in combat between NATO forces and the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's remarks from Kabul on Sunday that the international community should not forget about Afghanistan's plight because of the crisis in Lebanon should not have been necessary.

Despite fresh outbreaks of heavy fighting in the war-torn country, Afghanistan has slipped down the agenda as more high-profile and politically volatile conflicts have taken center stage. Steinmeier's comments, therefore, were far from redundant.

Germany's top diplomat began a three-day visit to the insurgency-wracked country late on Sunday, his first to Afghanistan, during which he will meet with President Hamid Karzai and other officials.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier reist in den Nahen Osten
Steinmeier will get his first taste of AfghanistanImage: AP

Steinmeier will also visit Germany's military bases in the northern cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and Faizabad where some 2,850 German troops are based as part of the NATO-led International Stability and Assistance Force (ISAF). Germany took over the command of the 21,000-strong ISAF in June.

The foreign minister will visit the new German headquarters at Mazar-i-Sharif and the German reconstruction team in Kunduz.

Resilient in the face of increasing dangers

While the German contingent is based in the more stable areas of the country, everything in Afghanistan is relative. Considering that the country is going through its worst bout of violence since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime in US-led invasion in late 2001, German troops are hardly based in a peaceful idyll in the Hindukush.

But Steinmeier insisted that Germany's resolve was strong. "Our engagement in Afghanistan is long-lasting," he told reporters on his arrival in the Afghan capital, and pledged Germany's continued support and involvement in the reconstruction of the country.

Bundeswehreinsatz in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is one of the army's biggest missionsImage: AP

Jens Plötner, a foreign ministry spokesman, echoed Steinmeier's pledge. "Afghanistan remains one of the main focuses of German foreign affairs. We have one of our biggest reconstruction projects worldwide based there, as well as one of our biggest military presences."

However, before leaving for Kabul, Steinmeier told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that Germany was concerned about the worsening security situation in Afghanistan. "The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated," he said.

Most violent phase since 2001

That was highlighted over the weekend when British ground troops and attack helicopters had to come to the aid of Afghan forces which were engaged in a bloody battle with insurgents in the south.

Verteidigungsminister Franz Josef Jung in Afghanistan
Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung in KabulImage: AP

While the German troops in the relatively peaceful north have a reconstruction mandate, the dangers for the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan have increased of late. In July, during a visit by Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung, German bases came under attack and Jung was told by senior officers that the threat to German forces from "improvised explosive devices" (IED) and Taliban missiles was increasing.

"The increase of attacks with IED, and also the increase in attacks on our soldiers with rocket launchers and also suicide bombings, have given our mission a serious and dangerous new quality," Jung said at the time.

Reconstruction efforts under threat

The considerable efforts of the Taliban to disrupt the reconstruction of Afghanistan means that there are few successes of note but some progress has been made in the past four years of international assistance, with a number of new schools and irrigation programs testament to the perseverance of all those involved in getting the country back on its feet.

Taliban Fighters
The Taliban fight backImage: AP

However, that progress is now more in danger than at any other time since the hard line Islamist regime was ousted. The return of the Taliban, the exploding drug trade and increasing corruption provide Afghanistan, the fifth-poorest country in the world, with gigantic problems.

But for Germany there is no alternative to remaining committed to the reconstruction program. For the government to pull its troops out would be a disastrous signal for a country fighting to survival.