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Afghanistan

Germany's foreign minister makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has touched down in Afghanistan on a surprise visit. In a speech to troops he pledged continued support for Afghanistan beyond this year's withdrawal of foreign forces.

Steinmeier landed in the northern Afghan headquarters of allied operations, in Mazar-i-Sharif, on Sunday morning in his first visit to the country since his reappointment as foreign minister after elections last year.

"We have not achieved everything that we had hoped for," Steinmeier told troops at the base. However, he also said that what had been accomplished should not be underestimated and that Germany was "duty bound to help secure what has been achieved so far."

This year was not just a "key year for Afghanistan," he said, it also "marks a turning point in Germany's engagement."

With international troops set to cease combat missions in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, Mazar-i-Sharif is Germany's last camp in the country.

Kabul talks

Steinmeier flew on to Kabul for talks with the Afghan government, which were likely to focus on the country's future after the NATO-led force's departure. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has stalled on signing a security pact with the US outlining plans to retain between 8,000 and 12,000 international troops in the country to train the domestic police and security forces.

Karzai, despite gaining approval for the deal from other Afghan leaders, had said that his successor should sign the accord; the Afghan president is not eligible to stand for re-election in an April 5 presidential ballot. Washington responded by threatening a complete withdrawal unless Karzai signs up, akin to the total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 when a bilateral deal could not be reached.

The German Bundeswehr is expected to offer a contingent of between 600 and 800 troops for the post-2014 mission, once it is agreed.

More than 3,100 German troops are serving in Afghanistan, with up to 5,350 Bundeswehr personnel stationed there when operations were at their height. This week, parliamentarians extended the Bundeswehr's Afghan mandate for the last time.

For security purposes, Steinmeier's visit was not made public ahead of time.

msh, ccp/jlw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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