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Turkish military officials today took over the command headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Technically, the NATO alliance continues to be in charge of the UN-mandated force. The Turkish officers are replacing a unit of mostly French and German troops from the alliance's "Eurocorps" that have been in charge of ISAF headquarters since last year.
13 February 2005 -- The handover of ISAF's command headquarters to Turkish Lieutenant General Ethem Erdagi took place during a ceremony today within ISAF's heavily guarded base in Kabul.
NATO officials, as well as Afghanistan's defense and interior ministers, were present as Erdagi spoke about the tasks ahead for the multinational force.
"My first priority will be the same as previous ISAF. That is to provide security in Afghanistan and to provide a safe and secure environment in which the government of Afghanistan can run the country," Erdagi said.
During Turkey's tenure, ISAF troops also are expected to be deployed for the first time into parts of western Afghanistan, where rival militias have clashed repeatedly during the past three years.
Countries such as Spain, Italy, and Lithuania pledged last week that they would supply some of the additional troops needed for such an expansion.
NATO defense ministers meeting in Nice, France, last week also began preparations for an eventual expansion of ISAF into parts of southern Afghanistan where U.S.-led coalition forces continue to fight the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The expansion into the west and south of Afghanistan is a significant development for ISAF. The United Nations Security Council last year expanded ISAF's mandate to all of Afghanistan, allowing the multinational force to operate anywhere in the country.
But so far, under its outgoing French commander Lieutenant General Jean-Louis Py, ISAF's only moves beyond Kabul have been in a swath of northern Afghanistan where factional militias that had been allies as part of the former Northern Alliance have battled each other since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
The 8,500 troops of ISAF also have worked alongside Afghan government forces and a separate multinational combat force -- the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition -- to provide security during October's presidential election.
German General Gerhard W. Back, commander of the Allied Joint Force Command in Afghanistan, said he expects ISAF to play a similar security role during parliamentary elections expected to take place in the summer:
"The reinforcement we have planned so far for the parliamentary elections go along the line of those for the presidential election except with more emphasis on air mobility, to get more flexibility to move forces around in the country if there is need," Back said.
Erdagi said today that Turkey intends to provide troops for a Provincial Reconstruction Team -- one of the small bases established across Afghanistan that serve as forward operations bases for coalition troops as well as hubs for projects like the construction of roads, bridges, water wells, and power-generating stations.
But Erdagi declined to give further details about which Provincial Reconstruction Team would get Turkish troops.
A Turkish mechanized infantry brigade is being deployed in Kabul. Turkish troops also have relieved forces from Iceland that have been responsible for security at ISAF's main logistical hub at Kabul Airport. ISAF currently includes troops from 37 countries.
(compiled from wire reports)