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Afghanistan: Multinational Security Force Taking Shape

Afghanistan's Northern Alliance leaders yesterday agreed to the deployment of a 3,000-strong multinational military contingent to assist them in maintaining security in Kabul for the next six months. The first elements of the International Security Assistance Force are due in Afghanistan in time for the takeover of a new interim administration on 22 December. While the UN Security Council is set to decide on the mandate of foreign troops later today, differences have unexpectedly emerged between potential contributing countries over the command structure of the planned force.

Prague, 20 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Plans to deploy an international Afghan security force were slowly taking shape today after the UN Security Council's five permanent members agreed on a draft resolution to allow foreign troops to use their weapons, if necessary.

Addressing the House of Commons yesterday, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said that, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw formally extended London's offer to lead the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for three months. Hoon also confirmed his country would contribute 1,500 soldiers to the planned UN mission.

An advance element of British troops, comprising between 100 and 200 men, is expected to arrive in Kabul by 22 December, when an interim government headed by ethnic Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai takes over for six months.

The first soldiers will come from a British contingent that is already securing the Bagram airport, 25 kilometers north of Kabul, and from the "HMS Fearless" landing ship currently on standby in the Arabian Sea.

Hoon's announcement came hours after Afghanistan's Defense Minister-designate Mohammad Qaseem Fahim said in Kabul that, after several days of negotiations with a British-led multinational assessment team, his government had eventually agreed to the deployment of a 3,000-strong international force under a strictly limited mandate.

Under this agreement, UN-mandated foreign troops should remain in the country until Karzai's cabinet steps down in favor of a new transitional authority elected by a Loya Jirga, or assembly of Afghan elders.

However, there are still several hurdles to be cleared before the bulk of the force could be in place. British officials cautioned yesterday that the deployment of the planned force could take several weeks.

Britain and other participating nations must first agree with the interim Afghan government on the exact duties of the ISAF.

Fahim -- who is also the defense minister of the Northern Alliance coalition forces that control Kabul -- made it clear that foreign troops, whose presence he described as "symbolic," would not be authorized outside the Afghan capital and its surroundings. He also said that only 1,000 foreign soldiers, or one-third of the ISAF, would be authorized to carry out security duties, while the remaining soldiers will be involved in logistical work or will stand in reserve outside the capital.

In his address to Britain's lawmakers, Hoon yesterday confirmed that the task of the ISAF would be strictly limited to assisting Afghanistan's interim authorities in enforcing security in Kabul: "The force will be charged with assisting the Afghan interim authority in the maintenance of security of Kabul and its surrounding area. The ultimate responsibility for security will remain with the interim authority."

In remarks obviously aimed at reassuring the Afghan leadership, Hoon also said foreign troops would not meddle in domestic issues: "The international community is sending the force to assist the Afghans, not to interfere with their affairs. Discussions with designated members of the interim authority, including its chairman, defense, interior, and foreign ministers, indicate that they welcome our intention to lead the ISAF."

Since the idea of a multinational Afghan force was first floated at the inter-Afghan Bonn peace conference in late November and early December, Northern Alliance leaders have insisted that foreign powers should not interfere with Afghanistan's post-Taliban domestic affairs and that responsibility for ensuring security in the war-torn country should be the sole responsibility of the Afghans.

Another concern expressed by Northern Alliance leaders in Bonn was that foreign troops might be mandated to collect weapons from Afghan warriors controlling Kabul. A draft provision to that effect was eventually withdrawn from the peace deal on the final day of the talks.

In an interview with the BBC, British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday confirmed that foreign soldiers would not attempt to disarm Afghan fighters.

Although powers of the multinational force remain to be clarified, Afghan security leaders insist that foreign soldiers be mainly assigned to the protection of government and UN buildings. They also say troops should be allowed to carry only light weapons and travel onboard unarmed vehicles.

"The New York Times" today quotes Afghan Interior Minister-designate Yunis Qanooni as saying the main job of foreign soldiers would be "to keep themselves secure" and that they should not interfere with security issues unless they are required to do so by the interim authorities.

Composed mainly of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek fighters, the Northern Alliance -- to which Qanooni belongs -- has long been reluctant to accept the deployment of foreign troops lest the alliance should lose control over Kabul.

Under the Bonn peace agreement, the Afghan capital should be demilitarized. However, reports that Northern Alliance military units have been ordered out of Kabul and that only a limited number of fighters carrying out police duties were remaining in the city were dismissed today by Fahim, who said that only heavily armed units will be withdrawn from the streets and confined to barracks, many of which are located in the heart of the capital.

Yet the Northern Alliance removed another obstacle to the planned deployment when its foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah -- who will also keep his portfolio in the interim government -- sent a letter to the UN Security Council, formally agreeing to the presence of foreign troops under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which authorizes soldiers mandated by the international body to use every means -- including military force -- to impose peace.

Hours later, the UN Security Council's five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- initialed a draft resolution on the deployment of the ISAF and sent it to the 10 non-permanent members for study. A vote on the resolution is expected later today.

If there seems to be a consensus now on the necessity of deploying foreign troops in Afghanistan, differences have unexpectedly emerged among potential troop-contributing nations about the command structure of the projected force.

London said yesterday that day-to-day command would be exercised by British Major General John McColl, but insisted that overall supervision of the peace-enforcing operation be left to U.S. commanders in charge of military operations throughout Afghanistan.

British officials argue that, should the UN force come under threat, U.S. troops would be able to provide air cover and evacuation facilities. They also support their claim on the grounds that enhanced cooperation is needed between the multinational force and combat troops already operating in the region to avoid possible interference.

In his letter to Annan, British Foreign Secretary Straw said yesterday the U.S. command "should have authority to ensure that the ISAF activities do not interfere with the successful completion of the Enduring Freedom operation."

Although Washington has said that it would not directly participate in the UN-mandated security mission, it insists that peacekeepers coordinate closely with its troops on the ground. U.S. military representatives participated in a security force meeting held yesterday in London.

Germany is one of the 20 or so nations that have expressed interest in participating in the security force, but Berlin has spelled out clear conditions for contributing soldiers to any UN-led mission.

In an interview with Germany's ZDF television on 16 December, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said the command structures of the ISAF should be clearly separated from those of U.S. and British troops hunting down the remnants of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan's eastern and southern provinces.

Experts believe that the opening rift between Germany and Britain is unlikely to hold up the expected UN resolution authorizing the deployment of a multinational force. But German officials have said that it could prompt Berlin to reconsider the size of its participation.

German lawmakers are expected to hold a special session soon to consider Berlin's contribution to the international force.

France said yesterday it planned to dispatch an advance 40-strong unit to Kabul by 22 December. The Czech Senate today approved the deployment of a special forces squad to participate in the UN security mission.

Other potential troop-contributing nations include Italy, Spain, Turkey, Argentina, Australia, Norway, Canada, Denmark, Jordan, Malaysia, and New Zealand. One of these countries will take over from Britain to lead the ISAF in three months.