Germany eyes Afghanistan pullout start

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Lawmakers approved Friday a 12-month extension of Germany's unpopular Afghanistan mission, but with the proviso for the first time that troops start coming home from the end of 2011 -- if security allows.

Under the mandate approved by a crushing majority of lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house, Germany can continue to deploy a maximum of 5,350 troops until January 31, 2012. At present Germany has 4,860 soldiers there.

"The German government is confident that it will be able reduce the presence of the Bundeswehr from the end of 2011 as part of a security handover (to the Afghans)," according to the new mandate.

"It will use every opportunity that security allows for a reduction as soon as possible, provided the situation allows this and that neither our troops nor the sustainability of the handover process is put in danger."

In total, 420 MPs were in favour, 116 against and 23 abstained.

NATO member Germany is the third largest contributor of foreign troops in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain, based mostly in the relatively peaceful north.

The mission is deeply unpopular with the German public, however, surveys show, and the north has become more dangerous of late. Since the US-led invasion in 2001, 45 German troops have died there.

"Today marks a real change in the context of the Afghanistan intervention," Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told public broadcaster ZDF.

"This means that we want to begin this year to hand over responsibility at regional level and then at the end of the year to start to reduce the presence of the Bundeswehr.

"And we want to make sure that by 2014 there is no longer any need for German troops in Afghanistan."

Chancellor Angela Merkel was not present for the vote because she was due at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. On a December visit to troops in Afghanistan, she said for the first time that Germany was "at war" there.

Juergen Trittin, co-chair of the Green party's parliamentary faction, many of whom abstained despite having supported the start of mission when in power in 2001, attacked what he called a "vague mandate in the conditional tense."

"Why is it that you cannot be as clear as the US president, who said in his State of the Union Address said: 'This July we will begin to bring our troops home,'" Trittin told the Bundestag, referring to Barack Obama's speech Tuesday.

Most MPs in the Social Democrats (SPD), in power with the Greens 1998-2005 and 2005-9 with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), voted in favour, with party head Sigmar Gabriel saying the safety of Germans at home was on the line.

"Breaking off the mission would not only imperil the chance of a peaceful future for Afghanistan and destroy the hopes of hundreds of thousands of families and millions of people for a better future," Gabriel said.

"It would also put people in Germany in greater danger from an unstable Afghanistan and a destabilised region... This remains the core of the reasoning for this mission. This needs to be made clear to people."

He said that naming a pullout date would help put pressure on Afghans not involved in the insurgency to work together because they know that foreign troops will not stay for ever.

"If you don't start pulling out in 2011, you won't be out in 2014," he said.

But Gregor Gysi, parliamentary head of the far-left Die Linke party, which opposes the mission, called on lawmakers to respect the will of the people.

"A poll showed 79 percent of people want German troops to pull out. It is only in the Bundestag that the proportions are the other way around," he said.

"We have become a potential target for acts of terror."

© 2011 AFP

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