Reconnaissance teams from 12 countries contributing to the British-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan have arrived in Kabul to familiarize themselves with the city and its security needs. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Kabul, the arrival of the teams should mark the beginning of a steady movement of soldiers and equipment into the capital in the weeks ahead.
Kabul, 2 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Reconnaissance teams from the 12 countries arrived in Kabul overnight as the city observed its usual 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
The teams, varying in size from one person to half a dozen or more, represent Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Spain, and Sweden. They temporarily join British troops already in the capital who have just opened a new ISAF headquarters near the U.S. Embassy in the center of the city.
Additional countries outside Europe -- including Canada, New Zealand, Turkey, and Jordan -- have pledged participation in the UN-mandated security force. It is not clear when teams from those countries will arrive in Kabul.
The first 12 reconnaissance teams are due to familiarize themselves with Kabul so that they can report back to their respective governments on how they can best contribute to the multinational force tasked with assisting in maintaining security here.
In an interview with the press last night, ISAF spokesman Major Guy Richardson said that the teams, totaling 25 people in all, will stay just a few days. He also said that, according to their recommendations, their governments will decide, in some cases, how many soldiers to send. In other cases, they may decide to offer only logistical help -- for example, contributing helicopters and pilots to aid with transportation.
The teams are also due to meet with Major General John McColl, head of the security force, about what he sees as the ISAF's primary requirements. Britain is to head the ISAF for the first three months of its six-month renewable mandate. Turkey is expected to lead the force for the second three-month period.
An open house was held today at the new ISAF headquarters to allow reconnaissance team members to meet with journalists. British officers working to rehabilitate Kabul International Airport and smooth deployment of the multinational force also briefed reporters on their progress.
Colonel Richard Barrons, chief of staff at ISAF headquarters, said British troops opened the new command office -- located inside a former Afghan army sports facility -- just two days ago: "We have been here now for two days. And the present task here is to establish the headquarters that will command the international force that will begin now to flow into the country."
Some 300 British troops are already in Afghanistan and are based at the British Embassy downtown and at Bagram air base, located an hour outside the city. Britain has said it is prepared to contribute some 1,500 soldiers to the ISAF, which is to total between 3,000 and 5,000 troops.
Barrons says the British soldiers are helping to rehabilitate the new ISAF headquarters. The work includes weather-proofing the large building, which will be used for office space and accommodation. The building is badly run down and requires structural repairs and installation of a lighting system. As countries send soldiers to participate in the ISAF, the forces will be based at several locations, in addition to the headquarters.
Asked to summarize what the ISAF will do, the British colonel would only say that the troops will assist the Afghan authorities to maintain security: "Our mandate is governed by the United Nations Security Council resolutions, and if I may sum it up, we are providing security assistance. We are going to assist the authorities in Afghanistan -- that is, the police and the military -- to maintain a climate of security."
As British forces open ISAF headquarters, they also are working hard to rehabilitate Kabul's airport for use by military aircraft and, later, by civilian airplanes delivering humanitarian supplies. The airport is located just minutes from downtown.
British Colonel Ian Caws, chief engineer for the ISAF, said he expects the city airport to be fully operational in 10 days. But he said several challenges still must be overcome: "The key difficulty at the moment is the runway, and there are five large craters in the runway. But we are using local Afghan contractors from the municipal engineers to repair these at the moment. In addition, there are no lighting, communication, or air-traffic control facilities in the airfield, and as a result we will be bringing in our own temporary system which will allow us to operate aircraft within a week."
The engineer said some smaller military aircraft have already started using the Kabul airport, but that within 10 days larger-bodied aircraft also will be able to fly in. The smaller aircraft include the C-130 Hercules, which is landing and taking off using just the taxiway that runs between the terminal and the main runway.
Caws also said larger civilian aircraft will be able to use the runway once civil aviation authorities determine that air-traffic control and communications equipment that the British military is providing is also suitable for civil use.
British military officials say it is too early now to give a timetable for the large-scale deployment of the ISAF in Afghanistan. But they say an inflow of soldiers will soon begin, after the reconnoitering teams report back to their governments next week. ISAF spokesman Richardson characterizes the inflow as a steady trickle in which small groups of what are being called "enablers" will prepare the ground for ever-larger numbers of arrivals.
Richardson said that some 200 more British troops are due to arrive by the end of this week. He said their presence will allow U.K. forces to increase the frequency of street patrols beyond what are now occasional goodwill drives around the capital.
The ISAF spokesman said that joint Afghan-ISAF patrols are not likely to begin before the middle of January.