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Afghanistan: Northern Alliance Rebuffs Foreign Stabilization Force

Leaders of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance say they are strongly opposed to any large-scale foreign military presence on Afghan soil. Despite this reluctance, a plan is being discussed to set up some kind of international "stabilization force" for Afghanistan with the backing of the United Nations.

Prague, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Northern Alliance has agreed to attend a UN-sponsored meeting next week in Berlin that will focus on forming an interim government in Afghanistan.

One of the major questions the meeting will consider is whether to assemble a multinational force in Afghanistan to provide security. This could include British, French, German, and Italian troops ahead of the deployment of a fully fledged UN peacekeeping force made up of predominantly Muslim troops, including those from Turkey and Indonesia.

But alliance chiefs say they are reluctant to have foreign forces in Afghanistan, whatever their intentions.

The arrival in Afghanistan last weekend of 100 British troops sparked alliance claims that they had not been consulted. The troops from the Royal Marine's Special Boat Service flew in unannounced to Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, on 15 November. The British Ministry of Defense said their task is to assess the security of the airfield as a potential landing point for aid workers, diplomats, and more troops.

More than 6,000 soldiers, including paratroopers and Royal Marine commandos, have also been on 48-hour standby for deployment to Afghanistan since the weekend.

But there have been reports that the Northern Alliance is blocking the deployment of more British troops, and that the U.S. is not enthusiastic about British plans to send further troops to the area.

At a press conference yesterday in Kabul, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said that the few hundred foreign troops currently in Afghanistan can stay to provide humanitarian assistance and protection for foreigners in the country.

"So far, the situation with the present number of troops which are in Afghanistan is that they could stay here, they could facilitate humanitarian assistance and participate in providing security for the mission of the United Kingdom and other countries in Kabul."

Abdullah said any future large-scale deployments of foreign troops in Afghanistan will need Alliance approval.

"Any such decision, which we would consider a major development, should be discussed and consulted with us, and any decision about it should be taken in the light of developments and should be based on a further evaluation of the situation. At this stage, there has not been such a consultation with us," he said.

Nigel Vinson, a defense analyst at the Royal United Service Institute in London, says the Northern Alliance is opposed to the deployment of stabilization forces in Afghanistan because the alliance believes such troops could compromise the alliance's control of the country.

"At the moment, the Northern Alliance, which has seized the reins of power both within Kabul and indeed throughout the majority of the country over the last week, would be reluctant at this point to somehow give up that power to some outside force that would try to enforce the peace on the ground in Afghanistan. A compromise solution might lie with a humanitarian and disaster relief force that was merely there to distribute the aid, particularly to the central highlands and to some of the northern regions of Afghanistan. But if there are any indications somehow that they were also trying to forge a peace and also to change the state of the government and the issue of a broad-based government, then the Northern Alliance, I imagine, would be extremely reluctant."

But Vinson says coalition forces are in a tough spot. On one hand, if they allow too much time to go by, they will have difficulties negotiating with the Northern Alliance. On the other hand, the U.S. needs the cooperation of the alliance.

"The fear is that the longer a reluctant United Nations and U.S. [take] in committing forces to the ground, then the less likely there will be a solving of either the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan or indeed in putting into place a broad-based government. After all, the only leverage the West has over any government in Kabul is one of aid. And, of course, the Afghan people have had to tolerate a lack of aid over many years. And the U.S. wants the cooperation of the Northern Alliance while it continues to conduct its operations against the Taliban. So at present, it is the Northern Alliance that holds many of the cards, not the coalition."

Vinson says any forces committed to the ground in Afghanistan need to be extremely broad-based. He says regional powers like Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan should not be immediately included because they have a vested interest in the future government of Afghanistan.

"But if, in a sense, the vacuum of humanitarian and disaster relief is not filled in the short term by outside powers, it is likely that some of these regional powers may seek to fill that power vacuum. So the onus is on the coalition led by the United States to fill that particular power vacuum and to be seen to be justifying it by using other Muslim countries from outside the region. A good example of that may be Turkey."

Vinson says foreign governments are primarily concerned with getting forces on the ground to facilitate the movement of aid. He said working beyond that to legitimize a new government will be very difficult.

"In one sense, it could be argued that an outside force might be required to give a legitimacy to whichever broad-based government is put into place in Afghanistan. On the other hand, that becomes extremely difficult to do and not many countries, probably including the UK, would be willing to commit sizable forces for an open-ended operation in support of a broad-based government."

Ultimately, says Vinson, stabilizing the new government is an issue that needs to be solved from within Afghanistan by the Afghan people. Otherwise, he says, outside countries will get locked into a dangerous assignment with no end in sight.