Steinmeier Goes to Afghanistan Surprise Four-Day Visit by German Foreign Minister

Germany's foreign minister has flown to the western Afghan city of Herat to show official support for Berlin's controversial mission in Afghanistan. Troop levels will rise in the fall, and US presidential hopeful Barack Obama gave the mission a rhetorical nudge on Thursday.


A German soldier in Afghanistan: Hardly a day goes by without news of a new horror.

A German soldier in Afghanistan: Hardly a day goes by without news of a new horror.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier flew to Afghanistan for a surprise four-day visit early Friday morning, hours after meeting with Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic US presidential candidate, in Berlin.

Steinmeier landed in the western city of Herat, one of Afghanistan's most stabile areas, under tight security to be briefed on the status of Germany's mission to rebuild a water supply system and support various cultural projects. Berlin has invested over €8 million ($12.6 million) in a water treatment facility for Herat. He is also planning to visit the city's historic district, have a discussion with students at the local university and hold extensive talks with the Italian regional military command.

The trip is also expected to include a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and high-ranking German armed forces officers in Kabul and the northern part of the country, where Germany is in command.

The trip comes at a time when Afghanistan has come under more intense scrutiny from the international community. The Taliban is growing in strength and it is pushing closer and closer to Kabul. Corruption is also rampant in the government and many ministries. President Hamid Karzai's government is wobbling, and it is questionable whether it can be reelected in elections one year from now. That is, of course, if the security situation makes it possible to hold a general election.

Both the United States and Europe are looking to the situation in the Hindu Kush with deep concern. In the US election campaign, both candidates have pledged additional troops; and Afghanistan seems to be coming up as a hot-button topic even more often than Iraq. Images of bombings in Kabul, a Taliban that is reconquering entire swaths of land and a recent and nearly successful assassination attempt on Karzai suggest that the country is edging closer to the abyss.

The unstable situation was one of the reasons for Steinmeier's trip. Berlin has sent 3,500 soldiers to the country and recently pledged to raise its troop limit to 4,500 soldiers by this fall, despite the fact that the deployment is opposed by the majority of German voters.

Sources in the Foreign Ministry say Steinmeier wants to use the short trip to underscore the fact that Germany is still standing behind its committment to the mission in Afghanistan. But the Social Democrat also plans to call on the Afghan government to do more to bring stability to the country -- including further building up its army, stamping out corruption and stepping up efforts to battle the drug trade. Indeed, the list of demands in Berlin is longer than any meeting in Kabul could cover.

'Aid Needs to Be Linked to Performance'

Nevertheless, the trip is still seen as largely symbolic. For some time now, the motto of the international community in dealing with Afghanistan has been to provide support while at the same time setting demands, as the latest donor conference in Paris a few weeks back demonstrated. The pressure has never been as great on the Afghans to finally do more than just administer the country's multibillion dollar reconstruction -- or, in some cases, to stop squandering that money. "Aid," one top German diplomat said, "needs to be linked to performance." And that is expected to be Steinmeier's message.

The clearest signal of how seriously the government is taking the trip, the third since Steinmeier took office, is its length. The minister will remain in the country for four days -- despite considerable security concerns. A leading German politician has never spent this much time in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001, and recently, few have even spent a night.

Steinmeier once described Kabul as an "island of stability" but the security situation has become so precarious that he will have very little personal interaction with the Afghan capital. Steinmeier will tour Kabul in a heavily armoured Mercedes, packed with technological amenities ranging from a GPS navigation system to radar jammers and radio detectors to guard against remote-controlled bombs. Even behind the car's reinforced glass, he will reportedly have to wear a bulletproof vest. The schedule of his visits in the city is being kept under tight wraps.

The palace where he will meet Karzai, once a romantic park setting, has today become a fortress with dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints. Karzai himself is only able to leave the compound by helicopter.

Top foreign politicians like Steinmeier are also considered high risks -- and the situation has grown especially acute since the January 2008 bombing of the city's only international hotel. The Norwegian foreign minister was staying there at the time; and cince then, few Western politicians have booked rooms at the Serena Hotel.

Soldiers only Leave Base with Armored Cars

The country -- torn by 20 years of civil war and Taliban rule and now occupied by US-led troops -- appears to be spiralling further out of control. On a month to month basis, more soldiers are dying in Afghanistan right now than in Iraq. And though the German troops have remained relatively safe at their bases in Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif and Faizabad, politicians in Berlin assume everyday they will receive news of bloodshed even in these places. Most German soldiers there don't leave base without bulletproof windows on their vehicles.

Hardly a day goes by without horrific news coming out of Afghanistan -- and what arrives in the West is just a portion of the actual truth. Currently, the ISAF international security force is working together with Afghan troops to try to bring an eintre part of the Ghnazni province back under control. In recent days, the Taliban had little trouble conquering the region on the western border to the Uruzgan Province -- not only disarming police, but also announcing their victory on the Internet.

Incidents like that have become a new tactic of the Taliban fighters. For a brief period, they secure an entire area -- as happened most recently in the northeast and previously just north of Kandahar -- and then they withdraw before any real battle begins with ISAF. Its political symbolism aimed to show that the Taliban is omnipresent and that ISAF is only capable of reacting, rather than acting. The Taliban also uses the civilian deaths caused by the international troops as part of its propaganda -- helping to erode public support for ISAF in Afghansitan.


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