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Afghanistan

Defense Minister de Maiziere makes Afghan troop visit

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere is in northern Afghanistan. The visit follows another security handover milestone, and gets de Maiziere out of a hostile domestic battle of his own.

Thomas de Maiziere landed in Mazar-i-Sharif on Thursday, two days after Afghan troops took formal control of the last 95 Afghan districts that had been controlled by troops of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It's de Maiziere's 12th trip to the country in almost 28 months as defense minister; he most recently visited in tandem with Chancellor Angela Merkel in May.

As usual, the German defense minister's visit was only announced at the last minute for security reasons.

With a total handover of combat and security missions planned for the end of 2014, the Christian Democrat said Germany would continue to provide military personnel after this date, setting the condition that there must be "a sustainable, reliable agreement on the troops' statute."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, angered by an announcement from the US and the Taliban late on Tuesday that they were considering direct talks, had suspended talks on this subject in response. Failure to reach a similar deal with Iraqi authorities was one key reason for the swift and almost total withdrawal of western troops from Iraq.

A welcome break from battleground Berlin?

According to the German DPA news agency, de Maiziere was to meet his Afghan and Italian counterparts Bismallah Khan Mohammadi and Giampaolo Di Paola during his stopover on Thursday.

Most of the roughly 4,100 German troops currently serving in Afghanistan are based in Mazar-i-Sharif.

De Maiziere had previously been Germany's interior minister until the resignation of his defense predecessor Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in 2011.

The Christian Democrat, a loyal ally to Chancellor Merkel, has faced calls for his own resignation from the opposition over the past month. Opposition leaders hold de Maiziere at least partly responsible for the cancellation of a project to build unmanned, unarmed surveillance drones for the Bundeswehr. Some 500 million euros ($663 million) were spent before the project was abandoned.

The defense minister unsurprisingly survived an opposition no-confidence vote in parliament last week, but a parliamentary inquiry into the project - initiated in 2001, long before de Maiziere's term of office - is pending. The timing of the Euro Hawk plans' failure, some four months before Gernany's federal election, is not likely to have helped the minister's cause.

msh/ipj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)