Kabul is preparing for a solemn ceremony tomorrow to inaugurate the new Afghan interim administration that will run for six months. The inauguration will realize the international community's goal of establishing the first broad-based government in Afghanistan, following the toppling of the Taliban. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Kabul, several important issues between the international community and key members of the interim administration have yet to be resolved, including the role of the International Security Assistance Force.
Kabul, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first soldiers of the planned International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) arrived in Afghanistan today just ahead of foreign diplomats gathering for the inauguration ceremony on 22 December.
British officials here say up to 100 Royal Marines arrived overnight and through the day today at Bagram air base outside Kabul. Unlike some 100 British soldiers who have been in Bagram since the Taliban abandoned Kabul in November, the new arrivals do not constitute a temporary security force for the airstrip. Instead, they are the first units of a multinational presence in Afghanistan, which the British Defense Ministry has said could total up to 5,000 soldiers.
The first duties of the 100 men just arriving in Afghanistan will be to help escort visiting dignitaries into the capital for tomorrow's inauguration. British embassy officials say that the soldiers also will use sophisticated detection equipment to help Afghan forces screen guests arriving for the two-hour inauguration proceedings, due to take place at the Ministry of Interior. Other British soldiers will stand along main avenues leading to the Interior Ministry in what is to be a first goodwill gesture to introduce them to the Afghan public.
Yet, even as the British soldiers take part in tomorrow's inauguration events, it remains unclear how welcome any future full-strength multinational force would be for some key officials in the new Afghan administration.
The head of the new interim administration, Hamid Karzai, who will be sworn in amid readings from the Koran and speeches by Afghan dignitaries and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, has said he welcomes the deployment of an international security force. But his defense minister, General Mohammad Fahim -- also to be sworn in with the rest of the cabinet tomorrow -- has spent much of this week telling the press that he sees no need for more than 3,000 foreign troops fulfilling what he calls a largely symbolic duty.
Many leaders in the international community regard foreign security assistance as essential for safeguarding against any return to factional fighting in Kabul during the new interim administration's term.
The administration's top posts were distributed among four Afghan factions, according to a UN-sponsored accord reached in Bonn on 5 December. But of the four factions, only the Northern Alliance -- which received the key ministries of defense, foreign affairs, and interior -- has troops in the city. That puts Karzai, who has no armed presence in the capital, in a potentially precarious position. Should political goodwill among the administration's leaders break down, so might peace and security in the capital -- unless there is an outside force to help preserve it.
For now it is uncertain when a full-strength ISAF could be deployed in Kabul, although London -- which has offered to lead it -- has said it hopes more troops will begin arriving before the end of the year. In the meantime, the Northern Alliance-controlled power ministries have repeatedly questioned the need for the troops, raising doubts as to how much cooperation they would offer the international forces.
The deputy director of the Interior Ministry, Abdul Shukur Khai-Khwa, told our correspondent recently that he welcomes foreign technical assistance to Afghanistan's police force, which reports to his ministry. But he said the country's policemen are fully capable of guaranteeing the security of the Afghan people themselves.
"The Islamic government's police forces are always on a high state of alert. And they can fulfill their daily duties in every field based on security plans. They are able to do everything required for routine and emergency situations."
Asked to clarify whether that means there is no need for an international security assistance force, he said, "I told you before that the Afghan police has its own special organization and in every province of the country they do their duties. They enforce public security and they rely on their own abilities."
Defense Minister Fahim told reporters in Kabul that he sees the only role of foreign troops as helping in the physical rebuilding of the country. "They won't be needed for security. The major reason to have international peacekeepers in Afghanistan [is] to help in the reconstruction of Afghanistan."
Fahim also said that the maximum number of 3,000 soldiers that he would want should be divided into three parts. He said 1,000 should be security officers to act as bodyguards for visiting dignitaries. Another 1,000 should be based in the center of Afghanistan as a reserve force for Kabul. And the last 1,000 should be doctors and other professionals to work on reconstruction projects.
Such statements could mean that much diplomacy still lies ahead as the international community begins to work regularly after tomorrow with key figures of the new interim administration. But for now, those kinds of day-to-day diplomatic contacts are still complicated by the fact that foreign embassies are only slowly reopening in the capital and ambassadors have yet to be appointed.
Around Kabul, many foreign embassies are again flying their flags after a hiatus of broken relations due to the Taliban. Newly reopened embassies include those of the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, Iran, India, and China, to name just a few. Russia also has resumed diplomatic relations. But almost all the foreign embassies have raised their flags on buildings that need much repair before they can become truly operational again.
At the U.S. Embassy, press secretary John Kincannon says only a small group of diplomats is already at work in the building: "We reopened the 'U.S. liaison office' in Kabul on 17 December with a flag-raising ceremony, and the U.S. liaison office performs many of the functions of an embassy. We liaise with the Afghan interim government, and we are also hard at work trying to get the embassy's physical plant up and operating again."
It is too early to say when the building, now heavily guarded by U.S. soldiers, will be fully operational again. Washington has not yet named an ambassador to Afghanistan; nor has London. But both countries are expected to do so in the months immediately ahead.