Visiting troops at their headquarters in northern Afghanistan, Guttenberg said he would have two Panzerhaubitze 2000 armoured vehicles, which fire heavy artillery, sent to the German troops “as soon as possible.”
On his snap visit, Guttenberg also called on the German public to remember the sacrifices of their soldiers and sought to assure troops on the ground their political leaders were behind them.
“To me, it’s important to make clear to soldiers on the ground that the political leadership stands behind them,” Guttenberg said.
It was also vital to highlight the importance of the Afghanistan mission to the German public and ensure “we don’t forget soldiers on the ground, but rather give them support,” he added.
Guttenberg’s visit came as Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected a call by opposition Social Democrats leader Sigmar Gabriel for a new parliamentary mandate reflecting the fact the government had finally started referring to the Afghan campaign as a “war.”
Through spokeswoman Sabine Heimbach, Merkel said the existing mandate approved by the lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, provided the “right basis” for the presence of German troops. After the bloodshed of Good Friday, when three German soldiers were killed by Taliban insurgents during an ambush, Guttenberg broke a political taboo by finally calling the situation a “war.”
During a memorial service for the fallen soldiers Merkel herself subsequently said: “Many call the mission in Afghanistan a war. And I understand that well.”
Guttenberg also joined Merkel in rejecting Gabriel’s call for a new mandate.
“The mandate is geared to reality. The leadership of the SPD knows that,” he said.
Backing for the Afghanistan war has deteriorated since Good Friday. In a poll published Wednesday by Stern magazine, 62 percent of respondents supported a withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan. This was the highest proportion calling for a pull-out since the Forsa polling firm began asking the question.
In September last year, after the controversial Kunduz airstrike on two hijacked petrol tankers that killed dozens of civilians, 55 percent of respondents wanted a withdrawal. In September 2005, when the situation was relatively calm for German troops, just 43 percent called for a withdrawal.
On his visit to the Bundeswehr’s headquarters in northern Afghanistan, which for security reasons was not announced, Guttenberg said he wanted to learn about conditions on the ground and see how the troops’ equipment could be improved.
“One has to learn about that on the ground,” he said.
The Good Friday ambush had sparked a heated debate about the equipping of German troops. Guttenberg previously said it was something that needed to be constantly monitored, though he rejected a proposal by incoming parliamentary commissioner for the Bundeswehr Hellmut Königshaus that troops specifically need “Leopard 2” vehicles.
At a memorial remembering the Good Friday attack, Guttenberg unveiled a plaque bearing the names of the three fallen soldiers and thanked the troops for their efforts.
“We rely on your power and your strength,” he said.
Guttenberg also said he had no problem with a US plan to send up to 4,500 extra ISAF soldiers to the northern region for which Germany has operational responsibility.
“We are in an alliance, and it is altogether normal that in an alliance different partners take responsibility … We are pleased that we have the Americans on our side,” he said.