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Afghanistan

German Defense Minister von der Leyen arrives in Afghanistan

Germany’s new Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has arrived in Afghanistan in a surprise visit. The trip came as NATO and Afghan officials began drawing up a framework on cooperation after troop withdrawal.

Five day after taking office as defense minister, von der Leyen arrived on Sunday morning in the northern Afghan headquarters of allied operations, in Mazar-i-Sharif.

It was the second visit by a defense minister to Bundeswehr troops stationed in Afghanistan in less than ten days. The previous week, von der Leyen's predecessor Thomas de Maiziere was at the base before he swapped ministerial posts to become interior minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel's new government.

Mazar-i-Sharif is Germany's last camp in Afghanistan. More than 3,800 German troops remain in the country, with up to 5,350 Bundeswehr personnel stationed there when operations were at their height.

Von der Leyen, who arrived from the Labor Ministry, is the first woman to ever hold the role of Germany's defense minister.

Day of talks on pullout

The visit came after NATO officials opened their negotiations with Afghan counterparts on Saturday. Alliance representatives said no deal would be signed until a separate, direct agreement with the US was finalized.

Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, confirmed negotiations had begun about a State of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to outline the alliance's overall role after 2014.

Rasmussen said the SOFA deal was essential for NATO's "mission to train, advise and assist" the Afghan army and police.

Ahead of any such agreement, Washington and Kabul have yet to reach an accord on the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would stipulate the status of US troops being deployed in Afghanistan after the current deadline.

"I welcome the start of these talks today...while stressing that the NATO Status of Forces Agreement will not be concluded or signed until the signature of the Bilateral Security Agreement between the Governments of Afghanistan and the United States," Rasmussen said in a statement.

The bilateral agreement - which would establish the legal conditions for US and other NATO troops - has been subject to some delay, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai citing concerns. Karzai has said he would not allow a continued NATO presence if that meant "more bombs and killings."

Pressure for full withdrawal

Karzai's delay in signing the delay has outraged some US lawmakers, who have called for a complete withdrawal unless the conditions are agreed upon.

A spokesman for US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was “pleased” by the start of the negotiations.

Given the comparatively fragile status of the Afghan security forces, there are fears of a resurgence of the extremist Taliban regime that was overthrown in the US-led invasion of 2001.

Between 8,000 and 12,000 foreign troops are to stay in Afghanistan after the deadline, officially with the task of training security personnel so the country might take responsibility for its own security.

rc/jr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)