By Sardar Ahmad (AFP) – Mar 12, 2012
KABUL — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called into question Berlin's planned pullout from Afghanistan in 2014 as she visited the war-torn country a day after a US soldier massacred 16 civilians.
In a phone call to President Hamid Karzai from the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Merkel expressed "her deepest condolences" over the killings of the civilians in the southern province of Kandahar, Karzai's spokesman said.
The point has not yet been reached where Germany can say "we can pull out today", Merkel said as she visited troops stationed in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan.
"And therefore, I can also not say that we will manage that by 2013/2014. The will is there, we want to do that and we are working towards that," she said, according to German news agency DPA.
NATO said in January it was committed to withdrawing its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are scheduled to take full responsibility for national security.
Germany is the third biggest contributor to NATO's 130,000-strong, US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) after the United States and Britain.
It had 4,900 soldiers in Afghanistan as of February 1, but a further 500 are set to be withdrawn by 2013 before a complete pullout.
Opinion polls have shown that the German mission, the first major Bundeswehr deployment outside of Europe since World War II, has been consistently unpopular in the country.
Tensions were running high in Afghanistan as Merkel arrived following a US soldier's massacre of 16 villagers, including women and children, in their homes in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar before dawn on Sunday.
"(Merkel) expressed condolences on behalf of herself and the people of Germany to the president over the killing of the innocent people in Kandahar," Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman told AFP in Kabul.
She also invited Karzai to visit Germany before the planned May NATO summit in Chicago, Faizi said.
She congratulated Karzai for progress made in building up Afghan security forces and urged Kabul to push forward the political reconciliation process with armed groups like the Taliban.
Sunday's massacre added to roiling anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan over the burning of the Koran at a US base last month.
Germany and several other NATO member states pulled their advisors from Afghan institutions after two members of the international force were shot dead in violence over the Koran incident.
The Koran burning ignited days of violent anti-US protests in which some 40 people died, plunging relations between foreign forces and their Afghan allies to an all-time low.
Sunday's killing spree came as the United States and Afghanistan pursue difficult talks on securing a strategic pact to govern their partnership once foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014.
The proposed accord would likely cover the legal status of any US troops remaining in Afghanistan to help Kabul with intelligence, air power and logistics in the fight against Taliban insurgents.
In her call to Karzai, the chancellor said a draft of the pact would be available this month.
Merkel last visited Afghanistan in December 2010, when she described the fighting there for the first time as "war".
This is her fourth trip to Afghanistan since taking office in 2005 and was planned before Sunday's incident. It was not announced in advance for security reasons.
Merkel also paid homage to German soldiers killed in Afghanistan since NATO-led troops first deployed to the country in 2002.
Fifty-two German soldiers have been killed, 34 of them through enemy action, according to the military's website.
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