BERLIN — Leaving Afghanistan too soon would be “far more disastrous” than 9/11 due to the risk of extremists acquiring nuclear materials, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday, defending an unpopular mission.
“The international community went in together, and we will pull out together. If we do not then the consequences, I am convinced, would be far more disastrous than the results of the September 11, 2001 attacks,” Merkel said.
“Just looking at the map makes this clear. Right next door to Afghanistan is nuclear-armed Pakistan, and we have to assume that another neighbour, Iran, is also doing everything it can to become a nuclear power,” she said in parliament.
In a spirited defence of the deployment following the deaths of seven German soldiers this month, Merkel noted that a recent conference organised by US President Barack Obama had agreed that “nuclear terrorism is one of the world’s biggest security dangers.”
“If we fail to tackle nuclear disarmament properly, as we agreed to in Washington, and if we left Afghanistan without a plan, then the danger would increase a great deal that nuclear weapons and nuclear material could end up in the hands of extremist groups,” Merkel said.
Germany has around 4,400 troops in northern Afghanistan, the third largest contingent after the United States and Britain. Parliament approved another 850 soldiers in February, following Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more.
Berlin wants to begin bringing its soldiers home in 2011, an aim shared by Washington. Germany is also providing 430 million euros (575 million dollars) in aid over 2010-2013 and wants to increase training of Afghan forces.
The latest deaths, three in a 10-hour firefight with the Taliban on April 2 and four in an attack on a convoy on April 15, took to 43 the number German soldiers killed there. Parliament held minute’s silence on Thursday.
According to the latest opinion poll by ARD public television on April 15, 70 percent want German troops to come home as soon as possible.
Just a quarter (26 percent) are in favour of the mission continuing, down from 39 percent late last year.
“The 43 soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan paid the highest price that a soldier can pay. They were protecting us, us Germans, so that we do not become victims of terrorism in our own country,” Merkel said.
“All soldiers serving in Afghanistan deserve our solidarity and our compassion. They live in constant fear of being injured or killed. They live with this fear so that we don’t have to be frightened at home.
“For this they deserve our gratitude, our respect and our support.”
Merkel attended the funerals of the three killed on April 2, the first time that a German leader had attended such an event since World War II.
She said she would also pay her respects to the latest four in Ingolstadt in southern Germany on Saturday, together with Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
Long accused of not doing enough to get the German public more behind the mission, Merkel’s government has moved in recent months to change the tone of the debate.
Guttenberg has come close to breaking the taboo on calling the mission a “war”, saying that “colloquially at least” it could be referred to as such, while also speaking of those killed as “heroes”.
“Suddenly we have German war heroes again. And there is a war minister,” Spiegel magazine said on its online edition.