Germany: Chancellor Merkel on visit to Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel made a surprise visit Friday to northern Afghanistan to visit her troops less than two weeks after insurgents killed a German special forces soldier and wounded a second, a military spokesman said.
Germany is the only NATO nation that has so far committed troops to Afghanistan after the coalition completes its scheduled pullout of combat forces next year. The U.S. is likely to deploy several thousand troops if the Afghan government provides them legal protection.
Merkel flew to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif after sunrise on Friday. She was expected to stay only a few hours, said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Marco Schmidl. He declined to give further details, citing security concerns. She was travelling with German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere.
On May 4, insurgents firing rockets killed a German soldier and wounded a second in northern Baghlan province. It was the first death of a German special forces soldier in Afghanistan. Considered to be the military's elite forces, the German special forces soldiers are similar to the U.S. Navy SEALS. They were accompanying an Afghan-led military operation at the time. Since 2002, 35 German soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in fighting. Another 17 died of non-combat injuries, including seven who died in a helicopter crash in Kabul in 2002.
At the northern Kunduz military base, Merkel and the defense minister laid a wreath at a memorial wall, etched with the names of the 35 German soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002. The wreath, in honor of Germany's latest casualty, read only "Task Force 47, Special Forces," because special forces soldiers remain anonymous even in death.
"We will keep an eye on the political process moving forward here," Merkel told the troops, according to a statement released by the government. "The presidential elections must be prepared and many things - building up the economy, and people must be given hope - have to be resolved."
Merkel emphasized Berlin's intention to continue its military involvement in Afghanistan after 2014, urging other NATO countries to commit soldiers to Afghanistan.
"Talks are still being conducted on this," she said.
With more than 4,000 troops deployed in northern Afghanistan, Germany is the third-largest international troop contributor in Afghanistan. Germany has pledged to leave 800 soldiers in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission closes at the end of 2014.
The U.S. is expected to keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan as a residual force after 2014, but no final decision has been made.
Germany's troops would stay until 2017 to provide training, advice and support for Afghanistan's security forces. They would be stationed in the capital, Kabul, and in Mazar-e-Sharif. After 2017 Germany has said it would be prepared to contribute 200 to 300 troops.
The final decision on Germany's post-2014 deployment will be made by the next German government following September elections. Polls show Merkel is likely to win a third four-year term. While largely unpopular among Germans, the Afghanistan mission is supported by Germany's mainstream political parties.
Germany's offer of troops also requires an invitation from the Afghan government.
At a ceremony in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Thursday, President Hamid Karzai said he wanted each of NATO's 28 members to negotiate directly with his government about how many soldiers it wants to keep in Afghanistan, where they will be deployed and how the contingents would benefit the country.
Protracted negotiations between the U.S. and Afghanistan over conditions for American troops after 2014 have so far not produced an accord. The U.S. insists on immunity from local prosecution as a condition.
Schmidl said there were no plans for Merkel to meet with Karzai or talk to the Afghan president on the phone.
"It is only a visit of our troops," he said in a telephone interview.
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.