The decision — challenged by the opposition Left Party, which has demanded that Germany end its military involvement in Afghanistan and other missions — means that Germany will eventually have 4,500 troops in the country, the third-largest contingent after the United States and Britain.
The vote was a relief for the government. Despite misgivings by pacifist wings of the Social Democratic Party, which shares power with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, the troop reinforcement won 424 votes out of 570.
Merkel, supported by the Defense Ministry, did not want the mission to be used by her political opponents during the federal election campaign next year, particularly since there is growing public opposition to continuing German military involvement in Afghanistan.
Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a Social Democrat, made an impassioned speech Thursday to the lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag, warning that if German troops were brought home now, the risks of an Afghan civil war could increase and any gains made by women and girls, who for the first time in many years can now attend schools, would disappear.
German troops are for the most part based in the northern province of Kunduz, which, compared with the south of the country, has been relatively quiet. But since Germany agreed to take over a special reaction force that will provide emergency assistance to its allies, its troops could be exposed to combat operations, something not envisioned in the parliamentary mandate.
While U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch troops are engaged in heavy fighting with the Taliban and other insurgents in the south of the country, taking the brunt of the casualties, the German and other European parliaments have imposed restrictions on how and where their troops can operate. German troops, for example, are not currently allowed to be deployed in the south or other dangerous areas.
In an interview before the afternoon parliamentary debate, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a Christian Democrat, suggested that German troops should be allowed more flexibility in how they operate.
He said that would be particularly essential in coming months when the countdown begins for presidential elections in Afghanistan.
The U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, pleaded with his NATO allies during a meeting in Budapest last week not only to send more troops but also to reduce or lift restrictions on them.
And in a landmark decision for NATO that signaled a shift in strategy, the 26-member military alliance also agreed to target the networks producing drugs. This would include going after the laboratories financed by the Taliban and other warlords who process heroin from poppy crops.
It will, however be left up to individual countries to decide whether they will participate. The German government has yet to give its troops the go-ahead to participate in the drug mission.
Gates said last week that the Taliban’s drug revenues, estimated at nearly $100 million a year, helped finance their operations, including the purchase of weapons that have been used against the 38,000-strong NATO force.