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Germany Plans Afghan Troop Increase

German soldiers of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Konduz (file photo)
BERLIN (Reuters) -- The German government has said it will send at least 500 extra troops and nearly double its civilian aid to Afghanistan in a bid to create the conditions to begin a withdrawal from next year.

Under pressure from the United States and NATO to provide more forces, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin would also offer a "flexible reserve" of 350 more to step up training programmes and improve protection to civilians.

Merkel said the new strategy foresaw pulling soldiers away from combat duty to instruct the Afghan army.

"This is a much more defensive approach, for which the German Army's offensive capacities will be rearranged," Merkel told a news conference in her chancellery, adding she hoped Afghanistan could assume control of its own security by 2014.

Today's announcement would allow Germany to send more combat troops under the proviso they will be used for defensive ends in a conflict that is highly unpopular among Germans.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who will outline the German plans at a conference on Afghanistan's future in London beginning on January 28, told reporters he hoped Afghans could start assuming limited control of security in 2010.

"We want to start a gradual handover in the course of this year, and in 2011 we want to start reducing our own contingent," he said. "We aim to achieve the handover to Afghan forces in 2014. We want the London conference to be a turning point."

Merkel said the new strategy meant the number of soldiers involved in training would rise to 1,400 from 280.

The Interior Ministry said the number of German police trainers in the country would also be roughly doubled to around 260, including those sent as part of European mission EUPOL.

Uwe Andersen, a political scientist at the University of Bochum, said the proposals showed Merkel was seeking to create as large a political consensus in parliament as possible without disappointing Germany's allies in Afghanistan.

"The government is trying to pursue a middle way," he said. "I think the Americans will be able to accept this."

More Civilian Aid

The United States and NATO had pressed Berlin to bolster its military presence in Afghanistan by up to 2,500 troops.

But with polls showing a sizeable majority of Germans favouring an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Defence Ministry had ruled out an increase of this magnitude.

A troop increase by Germany had been widely flagged, though the government had consistently said that any additional forces would likely have a training mission. The current parliamentary mandate allows the government to send up to 4,500 troops.

The main opposition Social Democrats responded by saying they could back the plans provided the pullout got underway next year and a time limit was set on the new deployment.

According to NATO figures, Germany had 4,280 soldiers in Afghanistan as of December last year.

Merkel added that from 2010, Germany would raise funding for civil reconstruction in Afghanistan to 430 million euros ($606 million) from 220 million euros at present.

Moreover, over a five years, Germany will contribute a total of 50 million euros to an international fund aimed at promoting the reintegration of rebels within Afghanistan, she added. The fund would be worth around 350 million euros in total.

Reaching a settlement with rebels was one of the keys to NATO's efforts to effect an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, said Andersen at the University of Bochum.

"Another question of vital importance will be what success there is stabilising neighboring Pakistan," he said.