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Afghanistan: German Leadership Role Expands Amid Iraq Crisis

As diplomatic rhetoric between the United States and Germany has been heating up during the past week over the issue of possible war in Iraq, Berlin has been expanding its commitment to security operations in Afghanistan. RFE/RL examines Germany's presence in the Afghan capital to lead both the political and tactical commands of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force.

Prague, 13 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder today defended his stance against war on Iraq in a speech to the Bundestag, rejecting criticism from opposition leaders that he is isolating his country and ruining relations with the United States. "Together with France, Russia, and others, [Germany] is making every effort to solve the crisis in Iraq through peaceful means," he said. "That [is] what we are fighting for, ladies and gentlemen."

Schroeder has ruled out any direct role for German forces in a possible U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq. Germany, France, and Russia this week signed a joint declaration calling for weapons inspections in Iraq to be intensified and extended.

Germany, France, and Belgium have also blocked U.S. proposals for NATO to start planning to send Patriot air-defense missiles, early-warning planes, and anti-chemical- and anti-biological-warfare units to Iraq's neighbor Turkey.

They have argued that starting defense planning now in connection with a military assault against Iraq would lock the 19-country alliance into a "logic of war," implicitly accepting that armed conflict is inevitable.

In his arguments today to the lower house of the German parliament, Schroeder outlined German contributions to peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and elsewhere in the world as a sign of Berlin's commitment to peace and stability. "Ten thousand men and women of the German armed forces are currently stationed abroad in order to secure peace and freedom for the people there," Schroeder said.

Schroeder emphasized that German soldiers are operating alongside U.S. troops as part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces across Afghanistan. "[Because of the importance of fighting international terrorism], this is the reason why our 'special forces' -- our special troops -- are serving side by side with the Americans in Afghanistan against international terrorism. That is the reason: [to fight international terrorism]," Schroeder said.

He also noted Germany's growing contribution to the United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which has helped stabilize the situation in Kabul since December 2001. "On Monday this week [10 February], German soldiers, together with the Netherlands, assumed command of the UN ISAF international security force in Kabul. Ladies and gentleman, this must be recognized by the German public. Up to 2,500 soldiers are operating there. They are doing a good job, and without Germany very few others would serve in such a difficult area," Schroeder said.

Indeed, the handover of ISAF command to Germany has highlighted what has been a strong and ongoing commitment by Germany to help bring stability to Afghanistan.

Afghan Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai has welcomed the development, saying at a Kabul handover ceremony that he expects the work of the new German-Dutch leadership to be consistent with the efforts of Britain a year ago and by Turkey since 20 June last year. "Germany and Holland that are taking over now, I'm sure, will do as good a job as was done by General [John] McColl of the British command and as was done by General [Hilmi Akin] Zorlu of the Turkish command. And I'm sure the new command headed by Germany and Holland will contribute significantly to peace and security of Kabul," Karzai said.

Within the next few weeks, after Berlin completes the deployment of fresh troops, Germans will comprise more than half of the 4,800 soldiers from 17 countries now involved in ISAF.

The German deployments to Afghanistan come as U.S. and British forces continue a massive buildup in the Persian Gulf region for possible military action against Iraq.

Military analysts note that Germany's enhanced role in Afghanistan has helped to free up British and Turkish troops for use in a possible military campaign against Iraq.

But a German spokesman for ISAF, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Loebbering, told RFE/RL there is no link between Schroeder's refusal to contribute forces for a campaign against Iraq and Berlin's enhanced commitments in Afghanistan. "Germany's commitment to ISAF has been very strong from the very beginning onwards. It has nothing to do with Iraq. Also, to our understanding, our commitment to ISAF does not counterbalance whatever involvement [Germany has or doesn't have] in a possible Iraq conflict. We clearly [differentiate] between [Operation] Enduring Freedom and the war against terrorism and a UN-mandated mission like ISAF. Those things politically and intentionally have nothing to do with each other," Loebbering said.

There are, indeed, strong ties between Germany and Afghanistan. Many Afghans who fled war in their country in the 1970s settled in Germany, and an entire generation of Afghans has been born, raised, and educated in Germany as the children of expatriate Afghan parents.

Germany also served as host of the United Nations talks on Afghanistan in December 2001, which produced the blueprint for political stabilization in the country, the so-called Bonn Agreement.

Berlin has also pledged $278 million in aid during the next four years to help with reconstruction in the war-ravaged country.

Yet Germany's strong contribution to ISAF has been downplayed during the last eight months when the headquarters of the UN-backed force was under Turkish control.

In fact, in practical terms, Germany has been in charge of ISAF's everyday tactical planning for nearly a year now, as the leader of the so-called Kabul Multi-National Brigade (KMNB), even while the headquarters of ISAF was being operated by Britain and then Turkey.

Loebbering explained: "KMNB, the Kabul Multi-National Brigade, is in charge of all tactical operations in the theater, which means patrolling, surveillance, [and] all these things where you may envisage soldiers in the field. ISAF headquarters is in charge of all the political-military things, [such as] coordination between the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, the Afghan transitional authorities, and also with the combined Joint Task Force 180 of Enduring Freedom, ongoing at the same time here in Afghanistan."

And Loebbering noted that Germany expects to continue leading the tactical command of ISAF's KMNB for the foreseeable future. "KMNB is under the command of a German brigadier general all the time. This doesn't change, although [the actual general in command] changes every six months. So every six months, there will be a new German brigadier general commanding KMNB. This is to be separated from the change of command with ISAF. We took over from Turkey [this week], and now we have a German commanding general, a three-star general, Norbert van Heyst, commanding ISAF 3," Loebbering said.

But German Defense Minister Peter Struck is suggesting that Germany will not continue with the joint command of ISAF headquarters after its UN mandate for the job expires in August. Struck said that instead, the United States and several other NATO countries want the NATO alliance to have a greater role.

He said he expects Germany to hand over the responsibilities of ISAF headquarters to either NATO or another country by September at the latest.

France has expressed concerns that NATO command over ISAF may provoke resentment amongst Afghans. However, Afghan President Karzai is welcoming the idea. "The countries that have taken the lead of ISAF so far have all been members of NATO. It's really up to the international community and the countries that are helping us to decide what form of command they would like to offer to the ISAF forces, and Afghanistan is happy with any command that will come forward," Karzai said.

NATO troops that are working as part of the antiterrorism coalition forces are also currently helping ISAF with air cover, logistical facilities, and rescue operations.