By Vincent Bevins and agencies
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called for a doubling of Afghan security forces to 400,000 to allow them to take over for Western troops, according to Reuters. “We should develop the capacity of the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police, so they can take care of their own security,” he said.
In Germany, as Reuters also reports, the government today has been attempting to avoid a debate about pulling troops out of Afghanistan that has intensified after the violence of the elections there.
BERLIN, Aug 20 (Reuters) – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government scrambled on Thursday to quash a public debate about pulling German troops out of Afghanistan that has grown louder amid a surge in violence tied to presidential elections there.
Polls show a solid majority of Germans would like the 4,200 German troops operating in Afghanistan as part of a six-year-old NATO mission to return home.
But the issue has not played a big role in Germany’s own election campaign because the partners in Merkel’s coalition — her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the rival Social Democrats (SPD) — both back the unpopular mission and are keen not to lose votes to smaller parties because of it. They agreed last October to extend a parliamentary mandate for participation in the NATO mission by 14 months instead of the usual 12 in the hope of preventing debate over the deployment from colouring the election race.
That strategy has backfired because Taliban insurgents stepped up attacks in the past week in a bid to disrupt the Afghan election taking place on Thursday.
The violence has prompted prominent political voices in Germany, including a former defence minister from Merkel’s party, to press the government for a plan to pull out German troops — calls leading ministers have been quick to reject.
Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung, from Merkel’s CDU, told ARD television on Thursday that he expected German troops to stay in Afghanistan for another five to 10 years and dismissed calls for troop cuts once the Afghan election is over.
“We will stay at this high level,” he said.
SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is running against Merkel in the election, said he did not expect German troops to be in Afghanistan 10 years from now, but any pullout depended on progress in training and equipping the Afghan army and police.
Debate about a pullout flared after Volker Ruehe, defence minister under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, called the Afghan mission a “disaster” at the weekend and pressed Berlin to act.
“We should commit with all our strength over the next two years and then start the pullout,” he told Der Spiegel weekly.
On Wednesday a member of the centre-right Free Democrats (FDP), who could form a coalition with Merkel’s conservatives after next month’s election, said a new German government must draw up a plan to get the troops out.
“The next government must formulate a precise plan that spells out how a pullout of the German army over the coming years would look,” Juergen Koppelin, an FDP member with responsibility for defence issues, told the Bild newspaper.
The FDP is expected to wield significant influence over foreign policy if it joins the next government, and its leader, Guido Westerwelle, is widely expected to be foreign minister.
Merkel, whose conservatives have a double-digit lead in opinion polls just over a month before the vote, has remained silent on the issue, prompting criticism from rivals that she has failed to spell out to the German people what is at stake in Afghanistan.