Page last updated at 11:25 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 12:25 UK

Afghan role at stake in German poll

By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Berlin

Germany's Left Party has called for military withdrawal from Afghanistan

The poster's message - "Out of Afghanistan!" - is unambiguous.

Germany's opposition Left Party - Die Linke - has been quick to call for military withdrawal after an airstrike in Kunduz called by a German commander appeared to have killed dozens of civilians.

Afghanistan, where Germany has 4,500 troops, has now become a central issue in the campaign ahead of the German general election on 27 September.

The German government's response has been to stridently back the Afghan mission - while also hinting at exit strategies. A leaked foreign ministry plan allegedly talks about pulling out German troops by 2013.

"The Kunduz incident showed again that military operations will cause more civilian casualties and we cannot afford to lose any more Afghans than we have already lost," said Thomas Ruttig, an external adviser to the German government.

Fluent in Pashto and Dari, he has just returned from six weeks in Afghanistan, and said the airstrike showed a military surge there was the wrong policy.

"I doubt that more troops would help," he said. "We have seen in Helmand before the elections a lot of your [British] soldiers getting killed, but the elections did not take place. And it will not be possible all over Afghanistan.

"We should concentrate on areas which are still halfway secure and should not try in the other areas. We have to set priorities."

Limited numbers

Mr Ruttig's point neatly sums up the thinking of the German government. Its reaction to the airstrike has made no mention of more troops. Instead, it talks about training Afghan police forces more quickly in German-controlled areas.

Peter Altmeier
The numbers are limited because the European Union has so many international police missions abroad that people feel they have a choice
Peter Altmeier
Deputy Interior Minister

But there is a problem here. Germany's interior ministry is responsible for sending policemen to the EU police force in Afghanistan, and deputy minister Peter Altmeier admits there is a shortage of volunteers.

"The numbers are limited because the European Union has so many international police missions abroad that people feel they have a choice, and they apply for missions in safer places rather than for missions like Afghanistan," he said.

Mr Altmeier added that Germany is working to improve pay and conditions to attract more volunteers, and confident of meeting its targets.

Meanwhile, the Left Party has exploited the controversy over the Kunduz attack, with rallies calling for German troops to be immediately withdrawn - a hugely popular idea here.

Strategy conference

The election has affected how others respond too.

German soldiers get briefed before leaving for a mission in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on 5 September 2009
Germany's 4,500 troops in Afghanistan are now an election issue

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is also the Social Democrat (SPD) candidate to be Chancellor. He had his ministry draw up the plan on how to make a withdrawal possible, perhaps also with an eye to electoral advantage.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's reaction was to join Gordon Brown in calling for an international conference on strategy in Afghanistan.

Ralf Neukirch, the dedicated Merkel-watcher at Der Spiegel magazine, says this too is a form of electioneering.

"To be quite honest I think this conference is a very convenient thing for Germany before the election," he said. "They want to give the German public the impression that Afghanistan is not a never-ending engagement, that it will end some time, without giving a concrete date.

"I think that's the main objective of this conference - just to give the impression you do something to get the troops out in the somehow near future."

Much attention has been paid to the aim, allegedly mentioned in the German plan, of achieving a pull-out by 2013.

Mr Steinmeier and others have not spoken publicly of this date, and many people see this as an aspiration, not a deadline.

But it does seem clear that the Kunduz incident - and the election campaign - have combined to focus German politicians' minds on an exit strategy.

You can hear Ray Furlong's report on BBC Radio 4's The World at One, 1300 BST (1200 GMT), 18 September 2009.

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