Just two weeks after taking office, the new German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg began a surprise visit to Afghanistan yesterday to meet with the country's top leadership -- including President Karzai -- in an effort to gauge the situation on the ground and to express Berlin's growing frustration and impatience with the Afghan government's reluctance to fight corruption and promote good governance. Zu Guttenberg's polite but unmistakable message to Karzai was very clear: Get serious about cleaning up your government or risk loosing the West's political, military, and economic support for the Afghan regime.
With about 4,400 deployed Bundeswehr soldiers, Germany is NATO's third largest ISAF troop contributor after the United States and the UK. Specifically, the German defense minister said that Berlin expects "tangible signs of progress" by the time a planned high-level conference on Afghanistan involving Kabul, NATO and the UN is convened, most likely in early 2010. While Berlin remains committed to the Afghanistan mission -- the Bundestag is set to renew the current ISAF mandate in mid-December for three months pending the outcome -- Germany's military engagement is not open-ended and the country's leaders are talking more and more about potential "exit strategies". In his talks with General McChrystal, zu Guttenberg voiced support for the recent air and ground offensive launched by U.S. special forces in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz region, but requested better communication and coordination with the Bundeswehr troops deployed there. This morning, after meeting with German military commanders in Kunduz, zu Guttenberg announced the deployment of an additional 120 troops by January to improve force protection and defend against the growing Taliban threat in the region. That increase will boost Germany's military presence in Afghanistan to 4,500 soldiers, the maximum level permitted under the current Bundestag mandate. The German defense minister plans to come to Washington next week for meetings with Secretary Gates and other Obama administration officials as well as political leaders on Capitol Hill. The difficult way forward in Afghanistan will certainly be atop the agenda.