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Afghanistan: Germany Reviewing Plans For Expanded Patrols

The attack on a German military convoy in Afghanistan on 7 June has re-opened debate on whether the international security force in Kabul should expand its operations into other parts of the country. Afghanistan's Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai has pushed for such an expansion, and the German government appears to favor the change as well. But as RFE/RL reports from Munich, Germany's political opposition says such a move is too dangerous.

Munich, 9 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The suicide attack on 7 June left four German soldiers dead and wounded another 29. They are the biggest losses suffered by the German military since it became involved in international operations by sending ground troops to Bosnia in 1995.

The soldiers were in a military bus on their way to Afghanistan's Bagram airport to fly home at the end of their six-month tour of duty with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). A stolen taxi first tried to edge its way into the convoy guarding the bus. When that failed it drew up alongside the bus and exploded a bomb. The driver of the taxi was also killed.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck says Berlin is not considering withdrawing its 2,300 troops from Afghanistan because of the attack, and that ISAF troops from other nations will also continue their work.

Together with the Netherlands, Germany is the joint leader of ISAF. Struck told reporters that any withdrawal of foreign forces would re-open Afghanistan to terrorists looking for a base of operations.

"The withdrawal [of international forces] is not an option because the country would again become a haven for terrorists using it as a base from which to launch attacks everywhere in the world," Struck said.

Struck said intelligence services had issued "general warnings" of possible attacks against German troops in Afghanistan, but gave no specific indication of when one might take place.

The incident marks the latest in a series of attacks on German forces, although it is the first one to be fatal. In February, two rockets were fired at the Germans' headquarters during a visit by Defense Minister Struck. In January, two bombs exploded at the base. And German troops received minor injuries when their convoys were attack by Afghans throwing stones.

The attack has re-opened the debate in Germany over whether the government should proceed with tentative plans to deploy ISAF troops beyond the capital Kabul. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has frequently argued that real peace will never come to Afghanistan until ISAF moves to other regions of the country to quell factional leaders and armed bands who control the countryside.

Schroeder's views are shared by Afghan Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai, who has frequently called on ISAF to expand its operations. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has suggested that ISAF troops also be deployed in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jalalabad.

A German government spokesman confirmed yesterday that Berlin will proceed with a scheduled visit to Kabul by a team of experts to examine how the international force could expand its operations. The spokesman said the team will leave for Kabul tomorrow despite the recent attack.

But some German opposition leaders question whether moving outside Kabul would increase the possibility of attacks on foreign soldiers.

Among them is Edmund Stoiber, who lost to Schroeder in last year's national elections. "I am very skeptical. I have to ask whether it is appropriate to station German soldiers outside Kabul in view of the difficult situation in Afghanistan," Stoiber said.

Some opposition leaders have raised the possibility that German troops should be withdrawn altogether if the situation becomes too dangerous. Their views are shared by the chairman of the German soldiers' association, Bernhard Gertz.

"Afghanistan is a powder keg," Gertz said yesterday. "The Taliban and the Al-Qaeda terrorists are regrouping and are getting stronger. It is extremely probable that there will be more attacks. If the security situation worsens dramatically, we should either strongly reinforce the ISAF troops or withdraw them altogether."

But Struck opposes suggestions that ISAF troops should move around Kabul only in armored vehicles to protect them from attack. German and other international troops currently patrol the city on foot or in jeeps, and Struck said German soldiers would continue to do so.

Struck said yesterday Germany wants there to be close contact between the soldiers and the people, and that it is essential that ISAF troops be seen as bringing peace to the country. "We don't want to be seen as an occupation army," he said.

Struck also pointed out that Afghanistan is not the only place where German troops are under threat. More than 8,400 German troops attached to the United Nations or other international operations are serving in the Balkans, Africa, and Central Asia. Two German soldiers are currently in the hands of kidnappers in Georgia.

The German government said last night that it still had no information about who was behind the fatal bombing. Both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are considered possibilities. The government spokesman said it could be several days before sufficient information was gathered to identify the attackers.