Germany's Merkel pledges more help to Afghan police

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KABUL, Nov 3 (Reuters) German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first visit to Afghanistan today and said Berlin would increase efforts to strengthen the Afghan police, seen as key to try to thwart the threat of suicide and roadside bombs.

Germany has some 3,000 German troops in Afghanistan and was the lead nation with responsibility for training the Afghan police from 2001 till this year.

''We should further strengthen our efforts in building up the police,'' Merkel said after meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai, adding that she would see whether her government could set aside more money for the task in the 2008 budget.

The US-trained Afghan army has made great strides since Afghan and US-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 for not handing over al Qaeda leaders after the September 11 attacks.

But as the resurgent Taliban now rely less on conventional warfare and more on suicide and roadside bombs, the poorly trained, under-staffed and under-equipped Afghan police are now the front line defence against insurgent attacks.

As the lead nation in training the Afghan police, Germany has spent 107.4 million dollars on the force since 2002.

The European Union took over the lead in police training this year and the United States has begun pumping money in -- some 2.5 billion dollars this year alone.

But it will take time for the police to get up to strength.

MORE AFGHAN TROOPS, BETTER TRAINING Taliban rebels overran two districts in western Afghanistan this week, easily ejecting the lightly armed police.

''The reason is the weakness of Afghan forces and the shortage in the right numbers of the Afghan forces, especially in the far flung areas of the country,'' Karzai told reporters.

''We must all try, the international community and Afghanistan together, to enable further the abilities of Afghan forces in numbers in training and in equipping, that is the answer,'' he said.

After meeting Karzai, and military and diplomatic leaders in Kabul, Merkel flew to Mazar-i-Sharif, the main base for German troops in the north.

Germany's parliament voted last month to renew the deployment of its troops, mostly based in relatively peaceful Afghan north, for another year, defying public opinion which is strongly against the mission.

The mandate is controversial in Germany, which has only gradually expanded its role in overseas military missions since World War Two.

The deaths of 26 German soldiers serving under NATO's command in Afghanistan in recent years have further eroded public support and a newspaper showed only 29 per cent of Germans backed the extension of the mission.

But NATO allies, engaged in heavy fighting to contain a Taliban insurgency in the south and east of the country, would like to see Germany allow its troops to do more and operate outside north of the country.

Berlin and some other alliance nations restrict where and how their troops may be deployed in Afghanistan and bar them from engaging in military operations. German troops, NATO commanders say, are even forbidden to patrol at night.

REUTERS SKB KN1813

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