German combat unit in Afghanistan to be tripled, reports say

NATO's quick reaction force (QRF) in northern Afghanistan, currently about 200 men, is to be tripled in size, according to two German news magazines on Saturday.

One task of the combat unit, which is currently all-German, is to protect thousands of peacekeepers deployed to the country. Back in Germany, the peacekeeping mission is politically unpopular, accordimg to dpa.

One of the Saturday reports suggested non-German soldiers would have to be transferred to the QRF to expand it.

The QRF would increase to battalion size, or 600 personnel, according to the two weeklies, Focus and Der Spiegel.

Asked for comment, the Defence Ministry in Berlin said an increase in the size of the German contingent in Afghanistan, which currently has a ceiling of 4,500, was not planned. The Germans are part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Focus said it was possible another nation, not Germany, would top up the QRF.

An October re-authorization for the wider German deployment may have to be submitted yet again to the German parliament because of a revision of Afghan provincial boundaries, the magazine said.

Ghormach district is being transferred from Badghis Province, where the Taliban are active, to Faryab Province, where ISAF's northern command, run by the Germans, oversees security. That could put the Germans in harm's way.

Der Spiegel said Norwegian combat units would be charged with the defence of Ghormach district. But the Norwegians had asked the Germans to help, with a winter offensive to be joined by the QRF, the Afghan Army, the Norwegians and some German units.

Since July 1, QRF duties have been conducted by German soldiers. Before that date, the mission was a Norwegian one.

A QRF is tasked with attacking Taliban fighters and covering other NATO units if they ever need to withdraw.

In a related development, Der Spiegel reported that Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, had admitted covert surveillance of a German relief group's communications in the Afghan capital Kabul.

The BND had told Welthungerhilfe it had scrutinized e-mails sent from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) between October 2005 and April 2008. ANSO is run by Bonn-based Welthungerhilfe, a group whose name means "world famine aid."

The BND said the surveillance, aimed at picking up signs of terrorist threats or other dangers, may have been unconstitutional. ANSO advises relief workers from several nations in Afghanistan about the danger of attacks.

After critics accused it of overstepping the mark, the BND has been conducting reviews of the legality of various snooping operations in recent months and has itself disclosed those which it decided were not fully lawful.

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