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Afghanistan: Outgoing Commander Urges International Security Commitment

  • Robert McMahon

The outgoing commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan said a continued international commitment is vital to prevent the country from slipping back into instability and factional rule. Turkish General Hilmi Akin Zorlu spoke as the UN Security Council was preparing to authorize an extension of the ISAF under German command. UN and Afghan officials have called for an expansion of the ISAF beyond Kabul, but council members say there is no support for this among troop-contributing nations.

United Nations, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Afghanistan nears the end of its first year free of Taliban rule, there is growing recognition in the international community that its security needs require greater attention.

But there is little chance for an expansion of the 4,800-member International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. The UN Security Council authorized the force one year ago to provide security to the Kabul area while the first institutions of a representative government were formed.

The current commander of the force, Turkish General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, told reporters yesterday that any expansion of the force is unlikely because of a lack of support from troop-contributing countries. But Zorlu credited ISAF with bringing calm to the capital. He said the force was involved in activities ranging from the training of Afghan soldiers to scores of reconstruction projects in the city.

He said pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters did continue to pose a threat and that arms remain widely available throughout the country. "In all places of Afghanistan it's full of mines, explosive material, rockets, missiles. You can buy rockets or missiles all over the country if you need."

Zorlu said international assistance must be accelerated on political, economic, and technical levels to keep the process of reconstruction moving forward. He said there must be a sustained international commitment to back the fledgling Transitional Authority's efforts at building a democracy. Otherwise, he said, other factions will be capable of returning to seize power. "Ordinary Taliban soldiers, [it] seems to us, have left the Taliban leadership and came back to their villages, their cities, but if the international community will leave again Afghanistan alone, it might be possible to see another -- either Taliban or any other -- faction as a power."

U.S. officials last week announced plans to expand military civil-affairs units throughout Afghanistan to support reconstruction efforts and improve security.

There are currently 600 U.S. civil-affairs soldiers among the thousands of forces in the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in the country, which operates separately from ISAF. U.S. officials have not said how many more soldiers it will commit as part of the new security policy but that new deployments will take place early next year.

Zorlu called the U.S. initiative a "worthy plan" and it has been greeted by UN and Afghan officials.

Turkey is scheduled to command the 22-nation ISAF until 20 December, but it could lead the force until February before transferring command to Germany and the Netherlands. The joint German-Dutch unit already deployed in ISAF would be expanded by the time the leadership is transferred.

The Security Council is expected to vote soon on extending the authorization of ISAF for one year but Germany plans to lead the force for only a six-month period. Afghan President Hamid Karzai yesterday asked visiting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to extend Germany's leadership role beyond six months. Fischer expressed doubts about his country's ability to fulfill that request.

Ishaq Nadiri, a professor of economics at New York University who also advises Karzai's government, said it is a crucial time for the international community to show it is committed to Afghanistan's security and reconstruction. He told RFE/RL the new U.S. plan for civil-affairs soldiers as well as the ISAF renewal will have symbolic and practical importance for Afghans. "The general public will see it as commitment of the international community not only to Kabul but throughout the country, and also this will have a psychological as well as substantial impact on behavior of different forces in different parts of the country."

Nadiri said security is especially important to help revive what he said was a once-vibrant private sector in Afghanistan. He said there are many Afghan businessmen in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East who would invest in the country if it was able to strengthen its institutions and rule of law.

It is Afghans themselves, Nadiri said, who are most capable of rebuilding their country. He said the fledgling public sector now has to develop programs to make sure the private sector will take the lead on reviving the economy. "This country is so destroyed that it's only its people as a whole [who], brick-by-brick, can build it. Nobody else can and that is a different perception. The international community should provide the means to do that."

Karzai is expected to join Fischer in Bonn on 2 December for a conference on political development and reconstruction in Afghanistan, one year after the first Bonn agreement. The conference will review the international community's contribution to peace and stability in Afghanistan.

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