Surprise Visit to Afghanistan Merkel Resists Calls to Send Troops South

German Chancellor Angela Merkel landed in Afghanistan on Saturday for her first visit to the country. She pledged more funds for training police and -- with an eye to an upcoming parliamentary vote -- insisted German troops would not be sent to the dangerous south.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's surprise visit to Afghanistan on Saturday was all about the timing. Her first visit to the country since taking the helm of Germany's grand coalition government came just a few days before the German parliament votes on continuing Germany's participation in the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and her visit to the United States on Friday.

Merkel took the opportunity to emphasize what she sees as Germany's priorities in Afghanistan, namely training police and helping to build up infrastructure, and she reiterated Germany's determination not to send its troops to the volatile south.

Her one-day visit, which was only announced to the media when she had landed in Kabul, was surrounded by high security, with Merkel wearing a bullet proof vest and transported in military helicopters and vehicles.

During a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, who called Germany an "old friend," Merkel announced that Berlin was increasing its contribution to police training to €20 million a year.

Germany is currently heading the effort to create a viable Afghan police force, but there has been criticism that Berlin has only sent 42 trainers to the country so far. "If there is a single aspect we should emphasize more right now, I think it would be the build-up of the police forces," Merkel said, adding that the country must be helped to take its fate in its own hands.

The Afghan police are currently bearing the brunt of the attacks on security forces by the resurgent Taliban. Militants were able to force out the police in two districts in the west of the country last week.

During her visit, Merkel met with UN Special Representative Tom Koenigs and General Dan McNeill, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistence Force (ISAF). She also visited a girls' school in Kabul, before travelling north to Mazar-i-Sharif where she met some of the 1,400 German troops based there.

Germany has come in for criticism from some NATO allies for failing to send any of the 3,000 troops it has stationed in the country to Afghanistan's dangerous south, where the coalition troops are engaged in fierce battles with militant Taliban fighters. This year has been the bloodiest for the country since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, with 5,600 people killed, including more than 190 foreign soldiers.

Merkel reiterated during her visit that there were no plans to send German troops to the south. However she added that "whenever troops in the south need urgent assistance, we will of course provide help," without clarifying what form that help might take. "But I strongly believe we should stick to our plan that has been worked out, in order not to weaken our forces in the north," she said.

Last month Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, approved extending the deployment of troops and six Tornado reconnaissance jets as part of the ISAF operation, after Merkel's government argued that a pull-out would open the door for militants to use the country as a base for terrorism.

This Thursday, the Bundestag meets to vote on continuing Germany's involvement in the US-led anti-terror Operation Enduring Freedom. Merkel then travels to Texas on Friday for a weekend meeting with US President George W. Bush.



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