updated 9/13/2009 6:08:00 PM ET 2009-09-13T22:08:00

Germany's foreign minister on Sunday advocated laying the foundations by 2013 for an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he is challenging in elections later this month, said it makes sense to exert pressure on Kabul to ensure progress. The country's unpopular mission in Afghanistan, where it has more than 4,200 troops, has been put in the spotlight by a German-ordered airstrike near Kunduz in which civilians appear to have died.

Merkel last week joined the French and British leaders in calling for a new international conference on Afghanistan to be held this year, hoping to accelerate and improve training of local forces and lay out a timetable in which Afghans can take back full control.

On Sunday, the weekly Der Spiegel reported that a paper drawn up for Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says the conference should "not satisfy itself with vague targets" and that foundations for a withdrawal should be laid in Germany's next four-year parliamentary term.

Doesn't specify date
Steinmeier, asked about that Sunday in a television debate with Merkel, stressed that he didn't envision 2013 as a withdrawal date. He did not specify one.

"We want to create the conditions ... by 2013 so that the withdrawal can begin," he said. "I can't say now ... let's get out without using our heads. ...

"Getting out now would mean women going back into the cellar, girls no longer going to school, farmers growing drugs again and plenty more," he added.

Germany should discuss with Afghanistan's newly elected president what his priorities are and "agree on a clear timetable on how long we need to be there," Steinmeier said. "Our purpose is to make ourselves superfluous in Afghanistan."

Merkel said that training of Afghan police and soldiers must proceed "as quickly as possible.

"What has been done now is that certain elements that fit into the overall framework of a responsible handover strategy have been defined by the Foreign Ministry," she said.

"That Germany goes in with certain ideas and says, we can do this and this by 2013, we can do this and this by 2014 is sensible," Merkel said, adding that that must be discussed with the Afghan government and the international community.

"And then, yes, we exert a bit of pressure ... so that Afghanistan takes its fate in its own hands," she said. "That is to some extent necessary."

Merkel's conservative bloc holds a double-digit lead in polls over Steinmeier's center-left Social Democrats before the Sept. 27 election. Merkel wants to form a new center-right government, but may end up in another right-left "grand coalition" with Steinmeier.

Only one of the five parties in Germany's parliament, the opposition Left Party, advocates withdrawing now from Afghanistan.

One of its leaders, Gregor Gysi, argued that the conflict there encourages terrorism — "so the withdrawal from Afghanistan should be decided on immediately." He said of Steinmeier's call for work on an exit strategy that the issue "is not suited to campaign talk."

The Greens, who were part of the center-left government that originally sent troops to Afghanistan, also questioned Steinmeier's motives.

"We don't need campaign maneuvers, but a binding reconstruction plan and a withdrawal perspective that is initiated by 2013," candidate Juergen Trittin said.

Not the only country wanting out
Germany isn't the only country keen to find a way out of Afghanistan.

In July, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said his country will be looking for an exit strategy after Afghanistan's presidential election, whose final results have yet to be announced.

Canada, whose troops serve in Afghanistan's dangerous south, has said that most of its soldiers will be withdrawn in 2011. The Netherlands plans to pull out its troops by next July.

Merkel and Steinmeier have warned against "premature judgments" on the Sept. 4 airstrike. Germany's ARD television reported Sunday that a commission looking into the strike for Afghan President Hamid Karzai believes 30 civilians were killed and nine injured. It cited commission member Mohammadullah Baktash.

Baktash declined to comment to The Associated Press because the group's report was not yet finalized. Germany's Defense Ministry also declined to comment.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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