Lawmakers voted 420-116, with 43 abstentions, to approve a mandate that authorizes the continued deployment of up to 5,350 soldiers in Afghanistan through the end of January 2012.

Germany’s parliament voted by a wide margin on Friday to keep the country’s soldiers in Afghanistan for another year, while also endorsing the government’s hopes of starting a gradual troop withdrawal at the end of 2011.

Lawmakers voted 420-116, with 43 abstentions, to approve a mandate that authorizes the continued deployment of up to 5,350 soldiers in Afghanistan through the end of January 2012.

All German military deployments abroad require parliamentary approval, typically on a yearly basis.

Afghan mission unpopular

Germany currently has 4,860 soldiers in northern Afghanistan, a region that was long relatively calm but has seen a rise in violence over the past two years. The Afghan mission has become increasingly unpopular at home.

The new mandate says the government is confident that it will able to start reducing the military’s presence at the end of this year - but it will only do so “as far as the situation allows.”

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said 2011 marks a turning point in the conflict, and any withdrawal of troops will be coordinated with other NATO allies.

“We went in together, and we will also responsibly organize together the process of handing over responsibility,” Mr. Westerwelle said.

The U.S. expects to start drawing down its forces in Afghanistan in July, when the first of the country’s 34 provinces will be turned over to Afghan control. NATO’s combat role will end in 2014.

Too vague, say Greens

The government’s aspiration to start gradually withdrawing this year was enough on Friday to secure the votes of Germany’s biggest opposition party, the center-left Social Democrats. But the Greens, also in opposition, said it was too vague.

“Your formulation says, you may pull out but you may not,” Greens parliamentary group leader Juergen Trittin told ministers, arguing that that might reduce pressure to reach a political resolution of Afghanistan’s conflict.

A ZDF television poll released on Friday found that 37 percent of respondents support Germany’s military commitment there and 59 percent oppose it. Support has slipped from 45 percent in December 2009.

The poll of 1,336 people, conducted from Tuesday through Thursday, gave a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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