BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel refused on Wednesday to set a date for the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, saying that would only encourage the Taliban.
She also tried to justify to a highly skeptical public a new strategy to boost troop levels in Afghanistan and nearly double civilian aid to help create the conditions to start a withdrawal from next year.
At a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Merkel said she backed his goal of having Afghan forces fully responsible for security by 2014. But she added there was nothing to be gained from setting out a pullout time in stone.
“I think it would be wrong to name a concrete date for a withdrawal because .. we don’t want to give the Taliban an excuse to go quiet and then launch a big attack,” said Merkel.
Germany, whose contingent in Afghanistan is NATO’s third biggest after the United States and Britain, has come under pressure from some NATO allies to provide more forces.
But opinion polls show the mission is deeply unpopular at home and Merkel faces a hard sell to convince German voters.
She has been careful to stress Germany’s role in training Afghan forces and resisted pressure to send German soldiers to the most dangerous southern part of the country.
“After eight years the balance sheet is mixed. We’ve seen some progress and too many setbacks. There is much that the international community has failed to achieve, so we must act,” Merkel told the Bundestag lower house of parliament later.
On Thursday, ministers from 60 countries meet in London to try to agree an international strategy for Afghanistan and boost efforts for a long-term political settlement with the Taliban.
“The London conference is about nothing less than setting out the way ahead,” Merkel said, adding that the mission continued to be in Germany’s direct interests.
Germany’s parliament must still approve Merkel’s plans, which also include contributing 50 million euros ($70 million) to an international fund to reintegrate Afghan rebels.
Merkel made clear she had demands of the Kabul government although she did not expect German-style democracy to take hold.
“Corruption has to be fought effectively, elections must be held democratically, drug cultivation must be fought and hostile forces must find no support from outside Afghan borders.”
Karzai, stopping in Berlin on his way to the London conference, expressed confidence that Afghan forces would gradually take on more responsibility for security.
“We want to be in a position to defend our land as soon as possible with Afghan forces,” said Karzai.
Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh and Dave Graham