US General and ISAF commander in Afghanistan David Petraeus tried to couple optimism with realism on his state visit to Berlin, reiterating that the alliance's target was to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014, but also warning against a swift withdrawal from the country.
"It is of enormous importance that Afghanistan not became a sanctuary for al Qaeda or other extremists again," Petraeus told assembled reporters in a press conference with German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
"The goal is to have Afghan forces in the lead in security operations by the end of 2014. All our efforts will be aimed at helping Afghanistan to develop the capacities to take on this mission throughout the country by that time."
Defense Minister Guttenberg was also cautious in his assessment of progress in Afghanistan, as the ISAF troops stationed there struggle against a resilient Taliban insurgency.
"We'll need to breathe deeply," Guttenberg said. "I think the word 'patience' will accompany us in these matters for some time."
Both Petraeus and Guttenberg sought to address recent criticisms of new ISAF tactics from Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai specifically pointed to the increasing numbers of night raids by troopers, calling their actions inappropriate and not conducive to reconciliation between Western soldiers and Afghan civilians.
"(Afghan President Karzai) has long expressed concerns about night raids, if they don't get the individuals they are after," Petraeus said. "But I was able to show him the statistics that indicate the very high rate of success of those operations."
Relations between Karzai's government in Kabul and the West - not least the US - have become somewhat rocky of late, amid a string of critical comments from all sides. Guttenberg suggested that some of the Afghan president's comments that have caused tension among NATO members might never have been intended for international consumption.
"I think it doesn't do any political harm to tell President Hamid Karzai from time to time that statements made with the local population in mind may also have a considerable impact abroad," the German defense minister said.
"This goes particularly for the political debate in those countries which have allied troops in Afghanistan. We talked about that during (last weekend's) NATO summit in Lisbon, and I think there's agreement that more caution and sensitivity will be needed in the future," he added.
General Petraeus, who is in charge of the ISAF forces stationed in Afghanistan, was on his first trip to meet with Defense Minister Guttenberg since taking on the job in July.
He also thanked the German military, the Bundeswehr, for its contribution in the country.
He praised Chancellor Merkel's government's decision to boost German troop levels in Afghanistan to 5,000, saying the Bundeswehr was already performing a "central role" in the country, and that the troop increase would further improve Germany's image.
Germany is currently the third largest contributor to the ISAF mission in terms of troop numbers, behind only the US and the UK. A total of roughly 130,000 ISAF soldiers are serving in Afghanistan.
Author: Hardy Graupner (msh)
Editor: Andreas Illmer