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Germany rejects US demand to increase Afghan deployment

A bitter diplomatic row between Germany and the United States deepened yesterday after Berlin flatly rejected demands from Washington that it deploy troops in war-torn southern Afghanistan and angrily dismissed the request as "impertinent" and a "fantastic cheek".

Germany currently has some 3,200 soldiers stationed in comparatively tranquil northern Afghanistan and the capital Kabul as part of the current Nato peacekeeping mission. It has been urged to deploy troops in the south before but has consistently refused. Yesterday however, it became clear that Washington had stepped up pressure on Berlin to commit troops to the south.

The move followed increased Taliban attacks and threats from Canada that it would withdraw its Afghanistan contingent completely unless more Nato troops were sent south. Canada has lost 77 combat troops in the region.

Two US non-governmental studies released this week warned that Afghanistan could once again become a failed state and terrorist haven.

Details of what was described as an "unusually stern" letter written by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, to Franz Josef Jung, his German counterpart, were leaked to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper yesterday.

The letter described Germany's performance as "disappointing" and asked it to consider a new Afghanistan mandate which would enable its paratroopers and helicopter units to be sent to the south of the country. It said the US wanted German soldiers to help replace an American contingent of 2,200 troops which is to be withdrawn this autumn.

Germany's response was a mixture of outrage and surprise. Initial comments leaked from an unnamed defence ministry source described the Gates' letter as "impertinent", and as a "fantastic cheek". One official accused Mr Gates of trying to inflict "psychological torture" on Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel let it be known through her spokesman that the issue was "not up for discussion". Franz-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign minister, also flatly rejected the idea. "I think we must continue to focus our attention on the north," he said.

Mr Jung later justified the German position insisting that there were "clear regional divisions" regarding troop deployment in Afghanistan. "Our current mandate only allows for German soldiers to be sent to the south in emergencies," he said. The issue is expected to come to a head next week when Nato defence ministers meet in Lithuania to discuss Afghanistan. Social Democrat MPs in Ms Merkel's conservative-led grand coalition government also argued strongly against the idea of sending troops south. Rainer Arnold, the party's defence spokesman, warned that the idea risked undermining the already shaky public support for Germany's entire Afghanistan mission.

"I cannot see broad acceptance for this idea coming from parliament or from the public", he said "This is a precondition for our continued presence in Afghanistan." Germany's presence in the relatively peaceful north of Afghanistan is already unpopular. An opinion poll last year suggested that more than 50 per cent of Germans wanted a complete withdrawal of troops. Ms Merkel's government is currently facing opposition to plans to deploy a 200-strong unit of combat forces in the north to replace a Norwegian unit which is currently policing the region.

Germany has already been afforded a special Nato caveat which in effective prohibits its troops from going on the offensive unless they are first attacked. At next Thursday's Nato summit in Vilnius, Germany is expected to come under intense pressure to lift the caveat.

Several German commentators attacked the government for rejecting the American request. The left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung accused politicians of being afraid of the voters.

* The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, will visit London next week to discuss strategy on Afghanistan, Iran and other issues with the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Ms Rice, who arrives on Wednesday, will also meet the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.