German defence minister on surprise Afghan visit

German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was on Thursday on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where Germany is the third-largest contributor of foreign troops, his ministry said.

Zu Guttenberg arrived in the war-torn country late on Wednesday for his ninth visit since being appointed in October 2009, and was due to visit German soldiers at their base in northern Afghanistan, the ministry said.

Germany has 4,800 soldiers in Afghanistan, the third-largest foreign contingent behind the United States and Britain. Forty-five of its soldiers have died there since the US invasion in 2001.

The deployment is hugely unpopular among German voters, surveys have indicated. On a visit to troops in December, Chancellor Angela Merkel said for the first time that Germany was “at war” in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers approved in late January a 12-month extension to the operation, but with the proviso, for the first time, that troops start coming home from the end of 2011 — if the security situation allows.

Zu Guttenberg, 39, is under fire meanwhile in Germany after a professor alleged that he plagiarised sections of his doctoral thesis, claims the minister rejected as “absurd”.

On a previous visit to Afghanistan in December, he was criticised for taking with him his wife and a television chatshow host, and arriving at an evening function back in Berlin still in his battle fatigues.