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Afghanistan: Debate Continues On Peacekeepers

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Britain and the United States have announced that advance troops from an international security force will arrive in Kabul in time for the new Afghan government to take office on 22 December. Details of the force's makeup have yet to be worked out and, in the run-up to the expected deployment, disagreements have emerged on all sides.

Prague, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the net closes in around Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda fighters trapped in their eastern mountain stronghold of Tora Bora -- signifying the last leg of the U.S.-led military campaign -- the world community is pondering the next step: How to create a security force to help Afghanistan's new leaders restore peace in their war-torn country.

In a statement released on 17 December, the British government said it hoped to deploy the first elements of a so-called international stabilization force to coincide with the takeover on Saturday, 22 December of a new interim administration backed by the United Nations. But London -- which says it is willing to lead this force and which has dispatched a military representative to Kabul to assess the security situation -- cautioned against the expectation that a large contingent could be deployed soon.

Hours later, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair briefed parliament members on preparations for the multinational force being made in the Afghan capital. He also commented on progress made at a recent meeting of potential contributing nations in the British capital.

"Britain is willing, in principle, to lead such a force," Blair said. "It is likely to comprise troops from various countries, European and others. Friday's [14 December] meeting of potential troop-contributing nations was attended by a number of [European Union] countries, as well as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Malaysia, Turkey, and the [United States]."

Blair also said Britain may contribute up to 1,500 troops to the planned force. But he made it clear that no decision has been reached yet, and stopped short of formally announcing the deployment of any military contingent.

"The British contingent is likely to be up to 1,000 to 1,500 -- though I stress that this is not decided. We expect the resolution to be passed by the [United Nations] Security Council later this week," Blair said. "The United States has given its full help and support for this security force and we would hope to have lead elements in place shortly."

Plans to deploy an international force to prop up peace-building in the region have spawned lively debate among Western countries and much controversy in Afghanistan itself.

Under the power-sharing agreement reached in Bonn on 5 December, Afghanistan's main ethnic factions agreed that UN-mandated foreign soldiers should be deployed rapidly in Kabul to ensure the safety of the new provisional government and reassure civilians that there will be no repeat of the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. But there is still no general agreement on the composition, strength, or mandate of the planned force.

The fiercest opposition to Western plans originates from the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of mostly ethnic Tajik and Uzbek warlords, which captured Kabul in November despite requests from the U.S. to hold back until an agreement on a post-Taliban government could be reached.

The Northern Alliance, which will hold the key ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs in the interim administration, has grudgingly agreed to the deployment of up to 1,000 foreign soldiers to guard official buildings in Kabul.

Reports that Northern Alliance Defense Minister General Mohammad Fahim eventually gave his consent to the deployment of a 5,000-strong foreign contingent after a recent meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have not yet been confirmed. The alliance is also questioning the timeframe of the international security mission.

Speaking 12 December in Kabul, Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni -- who, like Fahim, will keep his portfolio in the interim government -- said he wanted the mandate of the force to be strictly limited in terms of time: "We welcome the deployment of international peacekeeping forces, but we hope that these forces will not remain in Afghanistan for too long, because the [Afghan] security forces are able to guard [Kabul] and the provincial centers themselves."

That same day, Northern Alliance political leader and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani clearly suggested that foreign powers and their soldiers were not particularly welcome in the country, even for a peacekeeping mission: "We hope that peace and stability will be restored in our country. And we hope that this will be the last interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan."

Apparently, Northern Alliance leaders are not the only ones concerned by the presence of foreign troops in a country traditionally opposed to armed outsiders.

Meeting on 16 December at an air base near Kabul with the head of Afghanistan's incoming government, ethnic Pashtun tribal chief Hamid Karzai, U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had to offer assurance that Washington has no territorial claims on Afghanistan and that the sole purpose of the ongoing military campaign is "to expel terrorists from the country and establish a government that would not harbor terrorism."

Disagreements and uncertainty also prevail among Western countries on the size and mandate of the planned international force.

Confusion reached its peak at a European Union summit in Laeken, Belgium, on 14 December when Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel startled his colleagues by announcing that each of the bloc's 15 member states had agreed to contribute to the projected force. Hours later, it turned out that there had never been such an understanding, and Michel -- whose initial comments appeared to be supported by EU foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana -- had to eventually backtrack after Britain, France, and Germany rushed to dismiss his surprise statement.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it would be premature to envisage a joint European peacekeeping force since, as he put it, the EU does not yet have the military capability to do so.

In its weekend edition of 16-17 December, the French daily "Le Monde" observed that Michel's hasty remarks could have been prompted by what the newspaper describes as the growing frustration felt by smaller European states toward the leadership exerted by Britain, Germany, and France over European military issues. "Le Monde" noted that, in the opinion of British, German, and French decision-makers, the EU defense policy should rely on collaboration between individual states rather than on collective decisions involving smaller countries.

According to "Le Monde," London believes that, in order to simplify the decision-making process, only some six European countries -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and, possibly, the Netherlands -- should contribute to an international Afghan force. Britain's military planners would also like each participating state to put at least one 600- or 700-strong battalion at the force's disposal.

Germany, which from the very beginning of the U.S.-led military campaign has said that it was ready to dispatch troops to Afghanistan, wants the force to operate under a strict UN Security Council mandate. It also insists that foreign soldiers should not be deployed outside Kabul or its surroundings.

Some European leaders have also expressed concerns that an international security contingent could be deployed in the region while U.S. and British soldiers are engaged in ground-war operations in Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces.

Among those leaders is Britain's Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who yesterday told his colleagues in parliament that he has "deep misgivings about British deployment on such a mission of peacekeeping as described by [Prime Minister Blair]. That is based, most particularly, on the reality that we already have troops on the ground with the Americans carrying out the search-and-destroy against remaining elements of Taliban, as well as of Al-Qaeda."

Speaking on ZDF television on 16 December, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said his country had laid down clear conditions for taking part in any UN-led international force, stressing that command structures of both the fighting troops and the stabilization force should be clearly separated.

In an apparent bid to avoid confusion between its antiterror campaign and the projected stabilization mission, the U.S. has made it clear that it would not participate in the international force. But Washington says it is prepared to provide other nations' soldiers with intelligence, airlift support, and a rapid-reaction force to protect them if they come under attack.

Speaking yesterday after the official ceremony marking the reopening of the American embassy in Kabul, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins said he had secured assurances both from Karzai and Northern Alliance leaders that the new government will not prevent the stabilization force from fulfilling its mission.

"Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and I met with Minister [Mohammad] Fahim, the defense minister both of the existing and of the new government, which will take office in five days, and I also discussed the general subject with Karzai. Both [men] make clear that they want to work with the international community on this, and that there are not going to be any significant difficulties in agreeing on a mutually agreeable concept of operations and the Security Council resolutions to back it up."

Another cause for concern is the international mandate under which foreign troops will operate. Western countries want them authorized under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which explicitly allows troops to use every means -- including military force -- to impose peace. But Northern Alliance leaders and Russia -- which considers former President Rabbani as the main guarantor of its interests in the region -- want the force deployed under the charter's weaker Chapter 6, which envisages strict peacekeeping missions and does not allow UN-mandated soldiers to use force. The Security Council is expected to meet this week to decide on the force's mandate.

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