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Afghanistan: ISAF Defines Its Mission As It Patrols Kabul's Streets

  • Charles Recknagel

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is gathering strength, with close to 2,000 soldiers now in Kabul and joint patrols underway with Afghan police. But so far both London, which currently leads the force, and Kabul have said little about how the foreign soldiers will actually help ensure security in the capital. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with a British defense expert to learn about the details of the ISAF's mission.

Prague, 23 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Afghanistan seeks to recover from decades of warfare, two pressing concerns are how to keep the country's many factions from resuming fighting and how to provide enough security for reconstruction to begin.

In both cases, the international community -- and millions of Afghans -- are pinning their hopes on the ISAF. The force, which has been building up slowly in Kabul over the past month, now numbers close to 2,000 soldiers and is expected to swell to five times that size over the next three weeks. It is also growing more visible as it begins joint patrols with Afghan police.

But even as the ISAF takes to the streets, many questions remain about how the special force will actually go about ensuring security. Both the international community and the Afghan interim administration have spoken publicly about the force's mission only in the broadest of terms. That has enabled them to sidestep some of the disagreements that might inevitably arise over details, but has left unclear what might happen in a crisis.

At the same time, most of the countries involved in the ISAF have been vague about how long they will participate in the operation, which has been approved by the United Nations on a six-month, extendable basis. London -- currently in charge of ISAF -- has repeatedly stressed it will lead the force for only 90 days, raising the question of whether it also will withdraw the bulk of its forces when its leadership expires.

The British currently have nearly 1,000 troops in Kabul with the ISAF. There are also 129 Italians, 359 French, 241 German, 34 Dutch, 15 Finnish, 15 Norwegian, 11 Danish, five Swedish, and four Austrian troops deployed so far. Turkey, due to send some 250 troops soon -- is the only Muslim nation currently playing an active part.

Uncertain, too, is whether ISAF troops will eventually try to provide security assistance beyond the greater Kabul area. In recent weeks, interim administration head Hamid Karzai has said he would welcome deployments in other cities, such as Kandahar and Jalalabad. Both those cities have suffered periodic factional fighting and lawlessness since the Taliban were driven from power under the pressure of the U.S. air strikes which began on 7 October.

To learn more about the ISAF's mission, our correspondent recently spoke with Ian Kemp, news editor of "Jane's Defence Weekly." Kemp, who spoke by phone from London, has been closely following the diplomatic and military progress of the ISAF since its conception.

RFE/RL asked Kemp why the ISAF's mission has so rarely been discussed in detail by British and other officials.

"If you were to refer back to the original Bonn agreement which established the interim administration, the paragraphs actually covering the International Security [Assistance] Force -- the four of them -- are quite vague," Kemp said. "It specifies that initially the force is going to be deployed in Kabul and then suggests the force, if appropriate, could be expanded to cover other urban centers and other areas."

He continued: "It is clear that there are members of the international community [who] would like to see that mandate extended, and it is clear that there are still members of the [Afghan] interim administration [who] do not want to see the mandate extended."

Initially, some of these problems surfaced publicly, with interim Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim, from the Northern Alliance, repeatedly questioning the need for a large deployment of foreign troops in the capital. But both the ISAF and the Kabul administration say they have since resolved any differences by signing a military technical agreement. Under that recent accord, the Defense Ministry has welcomed the deployment of a 5,000-strong ISAF and withdrawn its own thousands of loosely organized Northern Alliance troops into barracks around the city.

Still, analysts say the ISAF may yet have to work out many of the details of how it will fulfill its mission as it goes along. Many expect that in the short run, the multinational force will adopt the security assistance strategy London has applied for decades in northern Ireland. That is to use outside military forces to bolster the work of local police units.

"British forces have been deployed for almost 35 years now, working alongside the police force in Northern Ireland, conducting joint patrols to reinforce the police," Kemp said. "But it is the police who bear the brunt of the burden and actually deal with the criminal charges and the criminal investigations. And it seems the same sort of pattern is now being established for operations in Kabul."

As the international community backs the UN-brokered interim administration in Afghanistan, a principal concern is how to disarm the country's numerous rival militias. That is not currently part of the ISAF's mission, though many in the international community hope the presence of the multinational force will help develop an atmosphere of security in which voluntary disarmament is possible.

Instead, Western leaders -- together with the Afghan interim administration -- are counting on integrating many of Afghanistan's professional soldiers into a new Afghan army. The commander of the ISAF, British Major General John McColl, has invited Defense Minister Fahim to tour military bases in Britain in February to see the shape such an army might take. Fahim has said he would like to build a national army of some 250,000 men to counterbalance warlords who control large areas of Afghanistan, while British officials are suggesting a small, professional army would be more efficient.

With the ISAF undertaking joint patrols in Kabul, some observers have recalled how the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops in Bosnia began with optimism but ultimately ended in disappointment. There, peacekeeping troops were frequently intimidated by Bosnia's warring parties but had no mandate to respond forcefully for fear of their being drawn into the conflict. The ISAF's rules of engagement are reported to be broader, though it is unclear if the multinational force would intervene to protect endangered third parties or suppress factional combat.

For now, Western officials are hoping that the situations in Bosnia and Afghanistan are sufficiently dissimilar that comparisons do not apply. Defense specialist Kemp says the most important difference is that in Kabul, the ISAF is dealing with a government which recognizes the need for cooperation with the international community.

"There was one significant difference with the deployment of UN peacekeepers to the former Yugoslavia, in that they were actually deployed in a conflict situation to assure the delivery of international aid. [In] Afghanistan, of course, the conflict has been resolved, although there are some elements who have yet to fully acknowledge the central government," Kemp said.

He continued: "But the most important thing is the interim administration in Afghanistan realizes that cooperation with the international community is fundamental if it is to assure the continued international assistance, particularly financial assistance, which is going to be so necessary for the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

That gives the interim administration, the ISAF, and many of Afghanistan's power brokers and warlords a strong mutual interest in keeping that peace and ensuring international aid flows smoothly. In turn, the international community is hoping the smooth flow of aid will enable the country to re-establish a functioning economy and regain political stability.