Berlin presses for bigger Afghan force

( dpa )- Under pressure from Washington to help more in Afghanistan, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government hopes to boost the German force there and extend its zone of deployment westwards, sources said Saturday.

Berlin would seek parliamentary authorization to expand the contingent with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by 1,000 personnel from 3,500 to 4,500, informed sources at a conference in Munich said.

However German Defence Minister Franz-Josef Jung declined to discuss the proposals when approached by opposition politicians attending the conference.

"Excuse me, but I can't discuss future authorizations," he was said to have told them.

The opposition has been pushing for German forces to confine themselves to reconstruction work in Afghanistan.

The military mission is not popular. A poll by TNS Emnid for the news magazine Focus showed Saturday that 84 per cent of Germans oppose the troops moving south and 63 per cent believe the Afghan mission does not serve German interests.

In the past week, Berlin has refused appeals from Washington to take on a fighting role against Taliban rebels in Afghanistan. US officials then suggested Berlin might help out more in other ways.

In a speech to the annual Security Conference in Munich, Jung called for greater dialogue and more joint decisions among NATO partners operating in Afghanistan.

He said lack of unity and cooperation was hindering the alliance's role as a pillar of global security.

The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel said Berlin would also offer to take on peacekeeping in Badghiz province, currently in the care of an Italian command.

Germany's main peace effort is currently concentrated in a largely peaceful area of northern Afghanistan, far from the fighting with the Taliban that has shaken the south.

German force levels abroad are governed by parliamentary authorization for set terms, usually 12 months.

The Munich sources said Merkel's government would also seek a longer term of authorization for the deployment so as to keep controversy about it out of the 2009 federal election campaign and aftermath in Germany.

They said they feared a logjam through lengthy negotiations on forming a new German coalition government in 2009.

The federal whip of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, Volker Kauder, called in an interview to appear Sunday for a longer term than 12 months.

He told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag that the next mandate for the troops to serve in the ISAF in Afghanistan, due this October, should be framed "so that we don't have to decide on a fresh extension in 2009, the year of the next election."

He said he would prefer that authorization to last through to the spring of 2010.

The Munich sources said commanders also felt 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers were needed in northern Afghanistan from a purely military point of view but knew this was probably not politically achievable with the German electorate.

However they were bidding for 4,500 to "obtain more freedom of manoeuvre."

Currently 3,300 Germans are serving with ISAF, only slightly fewer than the limit, whereas German peacekeepers in Kosovo have a generous authorization for 8,500 personnel although only 2,500 are actually deployed in that Balkan province.

The Christian Democrats rule Germany in coalition with the Social Democrats.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned a week ago that NATO risked becoming a "two-tier" alliance because some member states were not willing to send their soldiers to fight in Afghanistan's volatile south.

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