Negotiations over the strength of a planned multinational Afghan stabilization force have apparently succeeded with the announcement earlier today that Northern Alliance leaders have agreed on a 3,000-strong foreign contingent to carry out limited security duties. Afghan leaders also insist that the mandate of foreign troops be strictly limited in time. The United Nations Security Council is expected to vote on the mandate for the force tomorrow, but many details of the deployment still have to be finalized before a new government takes over in Kabul on 22 December.
Prague, 19 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- While the UN Security Council is working out details of a planned international security force to help Afghanistan's interim administration restore peace in the country, Western military officials and acting cabinet members in Kabul have reportedly reached agreement on some of the key issues related to the deployment.
Afghanistan's interim Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim today said the government that is expected to take office in just three days has agreed to the presence of a 3,000-strong international force with a strictly limited mandate.
Talking to reporters at the Defense Ministry, Fahim said troops will be deployed in Kabul and the surrounding area and that only one-third of them will deal with security issues. Another one-third will be involved in medical, engineering and logistics works, while the remaining soldiers will constitute a reserve force headquartered outside the capital, possibly at Bagram airport.
Britain is expected to lead the projected international force and to contribute up to 1,500 troops, with an advance element of somewhere between 100 and 200 men being deployed in Kabul before the new government takes power.
France said yesterday it would provide up to 800 soldiers, while Italy and Spain are expected to send 600 and 700 men, respectively. Other potential contributing states include Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, the Czech Republic, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Jordan, and Malaysia.
Fahim said the international security force would remain in the country for only six months, until the interim government -- run by ethnic Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai -- steps down in favor of a new transitional authority elected by a Loya Jirga, or assembly of elders.
The reported agreement follows days of intense negotiations between Fahim and a multinational assessment team headed by British Major General John McColl.
It is still unclear, however, whether Fahim -- believed to be one of the fiercest critics of the planned foreign force -- was speaking in the name of the entire designate administration or in the sole name of its Northern Alliance component, to which he belongs. A loose coalition of mainly Tajik and Uzbek warlords, the Northern Alliance will hold the key defense, interior, and foreign affairs portfolios in Karzai's cabinet.
Deployment of an international security force was agreed in principle at inter-Afghan peace talks concluded in Bonn on 5 December. One of the main purposes of this force is to avoid a repeat of the street battles among Afghanistan's armed factions that occurred during the 1992-96 civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.
Under the Bonn agreement, Kabul should be demilitarized before the interim government steps in. Yet, the Northern Alliance -- which captured the capital last month despite a U.S. request to hold back until a political agreement on Afghanistan's future had been reached -- still has some 4,000 soldiers there and is apparently unwilling to withdraw them.
Fahim made it clear today that he does not wish the international force to meddle in security issues. He said: "Security affairs will be conducted by the Interior Ministry, the intelligence service, and the Kabul garrison, which is part of the Defense Ministry."
In a late-night interview yesterday with Reuters TV in Rome after talks with former Afghan King Zahir Shah and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Karzai also cautioned against any foreign or domestic interference in Afghanistan's security and defense issues.
"There is total agreement by all concerned that Afghanistan must now have a national army that should be totally under the control of the Ministry of Defense and a national police force under the total control of the Ministry of the Interior, that 'war-lordism' must end, [that] the rule of the gun must end in Afghanistan, and [that] the Afghan people must be able to choose their destiny themselves," Karzai said.
Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who will keep his portfolio in Karzai's administration, recently sent a letter to the UN Security Council saying that the Afghan leadership would agree on a multinational force under strict provisions that foreign soldiers would not be allowed to use their weapons to enforce peace.
But Britain's ambassador to the UN, Jeremy Greenstock, yesterday observed that Abdullah's letter "clearly did not carry the authority of the incoming administration." Other UN diplomats also noted that British officials who held talks with Karzai more recently in London came to the conclusion that the head of the future government was not aware of Abdullah's letter.
Potential troop-contributing nations want their soldiers authorized under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which explicitly allows troops to use every means -- including military force -- to impose peace. But the Northern Alliance demands that the force be deployed under the weaker Chapter 6, which envisages strict peacekeeping missions and does not allow UN-mandated soldiers to use force.
AP yesterday reported that the UN Security Council's five permanent members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China -- have agreed on a draft resolution giving soldiers the right to take military action if necessary. Diplomats quoted by the agency said the draft could be circulated today to the other 10 Security Council members with a possible vote tomorrow.
Media reports said today Western diplomats are expecting a letter soon from Karzai consenting to a deployment under Chapter 7 of the UN charter.
Speaking today in Rome before leaving for Kabul, Karzai did not mention the mandate of the planned international force. Instead, the prime minister-designate -- who has no troops in Kabul -- seemed to take cover behind his defense minister. Asked about prospects for an agreement on the strength of the foreign force, he said: "Right now, it looks like we are looking at between 3,000 to 5,000 [troops], but it is something that will be settled between our Ministry of Defense and the people on the field there."
Karzai also claimed that his administration is in control of all Afghan provinces. Yet fresh fighting between ethnic Pashtun guerrillas and remnants of the Taliban militia was reported overnight near the southern town of Kandahar. The clashes erupted in the vicinity of Takhta Pul Post, some 75 kilometers north of the border with Pakistan.
Reporters were not allowed in the area, but Kandahar Governor Gul Agha confirmed yesterday that Taliban forces were still present in districts surrounding Kandahar, which the militia abandoned 12 days ago.
Further north, U.S. surveillance aircraft and special troops were still scouring the White Mountains today in search of fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Most of the Tora Bora mountain cave complex is now in allied hands after weeks of intense air strikes and ground fighting.
The U.S. has pledged to find Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden, the main suspect in the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, with or without Afghan help. The whereabouts of the two most wanted men in the world remain a mystery.
Speaking yesterday in Washington at a daily Pentagon briefing, U.S. Marine Corps General and Vice Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace said the war is entering a new phase and is turning into a methodical manhunt: "You have several valleys in the Tora Bora complex. Each of them is several miles long. In each of those valleys you have several hundred caves, and you want to go through them very methodically, one by one. And if it has been closed by bombs, you have to determine whether or not you want to open it up to see what's in there. And if it's not been closed by bombs, you have to determine whether or not it's worth going in. So it's going to be step by step, cave by cave."
Echoing Pace's remarks, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that soldiers engaged in the hunt for bin Laden and Mullah Omar would now face "tough, dirty, hard work."
Hoping to obtain valuable information about the two men, CIA operatives, FBI agents, and U.S. military intelligence officers have set about interrogating Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners at a special detention center built at Kandahar airport. American operatives say they have selected some 20 prisoners who could possibly know where bin Laden is hiding.
In addition to 15 Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters captured earlier in December near the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif and brought to Kandahar overnight, the prisoners include five men held on a U.S. Navy ship in the Arabian Sea.
Pakistani security officials said today they had apprehended some 40 Al-Qaeda fighters over the past few days while they were attempting to cross the border from Tora Bora. It is unclear whether these prisoners -- most of them of Arab origin -- have been placed under U.S. custody.