Top US officials said that if Germany won't send soldiers to violent southern Afghanistan, Berlin should at least increase troop numbers in the north. Bundeswehr training for one such mission is currently underway.
Even as Germany begins training soldiers to be part of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) in northern Afghanistan, the United States is calling on its allies to be prepared to send more troops.
US President George Bush and US General Dan McNeill weighed in on the issue over the weekend. McNeill said that while there would be no pressure on Germany to take part in fighting in the volatile southern part of the country, he hoped Germany would be willing to send more soldiers to the north.
It would be "extremely helpful" if the German government could find a few more soldiers to send to the north, said McNeill, head of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
While the north has relatively few violent Islamists, there is "a lot of criminality that often comes with drug trafficking," McNeill told the German Der Tagesspiegel newspaper in its Monday, March 31 edition.
Hopeful for greater involvement
In a change of tone from recent months, the US seemed to signal that it would stop pressuring Germany to take part in fighting the Taliban in the south.
US President George W. Bush said he will not use an upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest summit to press German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the issue.
Bush made the comments in an interview with German daily Die Welt, also published on Monday.
Readying for deployment
This summer, Germany will send 200 soldiers as part of a Quick Reaction Force to replace a Norwegian contingent. The soldiers will be based in the north, but with the potential to operate in all parts of the country.
The training for that mission has already begun. There's an almost tangible air of efficiency and high expectations at the Bergen barracks in northern Germany as men and women recently braced for another day of intense military training and exercises. Dressed in camouflage gear, the troops are focused on making the most out of the time that remains before they're flown to northern Afghanistan.
Thomas, one of the soldiers in training, said he and his team are doing whatever they can to prepare for their future deployment.
"Basically, the only thing we can't really simulate here are the extreme temperatures," he said. "But as far as peculiarities of terrain are concerned, the sand and dust here in the camp is pretty much the same."
He said that the conditions at the training camp outside Hannover are not identical to those in Afghanistan, but he's confident the months of training have made him and his fellow soldiers well prepared for the situation on the ground.
Thomas, like the other young men and two women at Bergen make up Germany's QRF, the strategic reserve of NATO's Regional Command North. The troops are responsible for helping local Afghan authorities reconstruct the country and provide security. In conflict situations, the QRF is prepared to act as brokers and engage in combat if necessary.
Preparing for the worst
Although the German troops hope they will not be forced into a combat situation, they are prepared for the worst. The Bergen training camp has a number of shooting ranges and the QRF troops practice here on a daily basis. Everyone hopes their shooting skills will not be put to a test in Afghanistan, but there's no guarantee.
Juergen Weigt, who will soon head NATO's Regional Command North, said that the Bundeswehr has already lost 26 soldiers in Afghanistan.
"This proves that the mission in northern Afghanistan cannot be described as free of risks and danger as some observers and even NATO allies tend to do at times," he said.
That's why the team is taking every precaution while still in Germany. The 200 soldiers are put through a daily barrage of drills, designed to prepare them for different scenarios ranging from armed attacks by extremists to suicide bombings and hostage situations. QRF has to be ready to step into action at a moment's notice and secure the upper hand.
Avoiding sleepless nights
While the risks are very much on the minds of the troops and combat readiness is top on the list of training objectives, the months at Bergen barracks have also attuned the soldiers to their role as a de-escalation force in times of conflict. QRF team member Sabine said she hopes her unit will make a name for itself in a peaceful manner. She believes that the basic knowledge the team has acquired about Afghanistan will come in handy.
"We had several lessons about the history and geography of Afghanistan," she said. "We dealt with the various religious denominations. And we familiarized ourselves with some of the country's centuries-old traditions and customs."
Sabine said she's realistic about the dangers she may face while in Afghanistan, but she tries not to lose any sleepless nights over it.
"If I were to constantly think about the risks involved, I'd end up a nervous wreck," she said. "I've decided for myself that it's better not to think about it at all. I can only hope that we'll be able to return from the mission in one piece."
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