Helicopter Shortage in the North? Worries Grow in Berlin about US Afghanistan Pull-Out

The German government is concerned about the US plan, announced by President Obama last week, to reduce its presence in Afghanistan. The German military relies heavily on US helicopters in the northern part of the country. Leaders in Berlin fear a reduction in their number could put German soldiers at greater risk.

Germany is concerned that the planned US drawdown in Afghanistan could leave it without enough helicopters. Zoom
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Germany is concerned that the planned US drawdown in Afghanistan could leave it without enough helicopters.

On the one hand, there are plenty in Germany who are pleased with the recent announcement by US President Barack Obama that the United States intends to begin reducing its presence in Afghanistan. On the other, however, the government in Berlin is concerned that a partial US forces pullout could endanger German troops in northern Afghanistan.

The problem is that, while the US and Germany have some 5,000 troops posted in the northern part of the country, the Bundeswehr does not possess enough helicopters. The German troops must often rely on US aircraft to airlift wounded German soldiers in the region. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is attempting to ensure that the US troop reduction does not have too great an effect on the American presence in Regional Command North.

Obama announced last week that he intends to withdraw some 33,000 US troops from Afghanistan by 2012, a number representing roughly a third of the American contingent in the country. The move essentially brings to an end the so-called "Surge" that Obama ordered soon after taking office. US forces make up more than two-thirds of the 132,500 NATO troops currently stationed in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Many in the US military are not convinced of the wisdom of Obama's move given the still fragile nature of the security situation in Afghanistan. But after a decade of involvement, war-weariness has set in among the 48 countries with troops stationed in Afghanistan. Concerns about the cost of the war have also been growing rapidly in recent weeks in the US.

'Necessary for Years to Come'

The announcement of US troop reductions has also triggered a similar discussion in several NATO countries. Canada had already announced its intention to pull out. By the end of the year, the country's presence of 2,900 troops in Afghanistan is to be reduced by two-thirds. On the heels of the Obama announcement, France announced plans for a similar reduction, likely meaning that 1,000 French troops will depart by the next summer. Britain is also planning a marginal reduction this year.

It seems likely that Germany will also join the exodus. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spent valuable political capital last year by insisting that the government pledge to withdraw some of the 5,000 German troops from Afghanistan by this winter should the situation allow. The parliamentary mandate for Germany's presence in Afghanistan is up for renewal in early 2012.

According to German government sources, Berlin has yet to receive any concrete information regarding the degree to which Obama's draw down might affect northern Afghanistan. Washington has, however, indicated that the US presence in the region will remain stable at least until the end of this year.

An ISAF spokesman in Afghanistan, German General Josef Blotz, said that, despite the withdrawal discussions, a NATO presence in Afghanistan will be necessary for years to come.

"There will have to be a NATO force made up of military advisors and trainers -- even if it is much smaller than today -- in Afghanistan even beyond 2014," he said. "We cannot make the same mistake made by the Russians following their withdrawal in 1989, that of losing interest in Afghanistan and the region. We will have to remain present in the country and in the region."

cgh/SPIEGEL

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