The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) serving in Afghanistan grows in size and strength every day. If the sight of an ISAF patrol was an oddity one week ago, it is commonplace now. There are close to 2,000 soldiers in the capital, Kabul, and the British-led force -- which also contains troops from Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Norway, among other countries -- is expected to swell to about 5,000 soldiers over the next three weeks. RFE/RL's correspondent in Kabul, Bruce Pannier, went on a night patrol with a British paratrooper unit last night and filed this report.
Kabul, 24 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- They walk through the dark streets of a ruined neighborhood. For several kilometers in every direction, hardly a building is standing, just foundations or the support beams of walls.
Some 20 British paratroopers move in and out of the shadows, walking quietly, stopping at intersections, turning on their night-vision rifle scopes and scanning the surrounding area for signs of life. The unit, part of the ISAF, is patrolling western Kabul for another night.
There is a 10 p.m. curfew throughout the city, and the streets are supposed to be deserted.
The patrol -- three vehicles strong -- crosses the Kabul River, drives past Olympic Stadium where the Taliban once conducted public executions and amputations, and heads into a neighborhood mostly destroyed during factional fighting between 1992 and 1996.
Driving past the ruins, one British soldier explains that, since 1999, his unit has been sent to Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and arrived recently in Afghanistan after being stationed in Macedonia. He says the destruction in Kabul is the worst he has seen.
At the local police station, manned by several men dressed in civilian clothing and armed with Kalashnikovs, the British unit stops. Most of the soldiers leave the vehicles for a foot patrol. There are no electric lights, except for the rare home -- maybe one to a street -- that somehow survived the battles and is still inhabited.
For the first 20 minutes, the only movement on the street, besides the soldiers, are stray dogs running among the debris. The patrol turns down another street and slowly moves forward.
There is a surprise down the road.
Several of the soldiers pass by a burned-out building when a man emerges from the shadows, a machine gun slung over his shoulder.
A British sergeant, who declined to give his name, orders his men to stop and calls for the unit's translator.
"Ask him who is he."
The Afghan man, who appears to be about 50 years old, is quickly surrounded by British soldiers and through the translator tells his story.
"I am a soldier. Day and night I am here. There are three, four, five, or six soldiers upstairs. Since the revolution of [Nur Mohammad] Taraki [the first Communist Afghan president], I have been a mujahedin, and still I am a soldier," he says.
The British soldiers want to know whether the Afghan man is attached to the local police. Though he eventually says that he is, no one is convinced. The man is one of many in Kabul who remain armed, despite directives from the interim government that everyone with guns leave the city or surrender their weapons.
The ISAF, however, has no orders to disarm Afghans in the city, only to be a visible presence on the streets of Kabul.
The British sergeant turns the conversation to other topics after giving the Afghan man what to any soldier is a compliment.
"Tell him he's a bit of a veteran then. He's seen a lot. Ask him, how does he feel about the ISAF being here. When does he feel we should go?"
The Afghan man says he is happy for the presence of the security force: "We believe you have come here to help us, and we are satisfied with that. May God give you happiness. You have come here according to the agreement that our leaders have signed with the United Nations. And you can stay as long you want and then go, because you have come to help us."
The foot patrol moves on to rendezvous with the unit's vehicles. There are still parts of the neighborhood to be checked. The unit drives by checkpoints and exchanges greetings of "Salaam" with the police as they pass.
The soldiers are reluctant to talk to a reporter about their mission but say it was not so friendly when they first started patrolling this neighborhood. Often, local police officers, who have neither badges nor uniforms, would spring from the roadside, pointing their automatic weapons at the British soldiers and demanding to know who they were and what they were doing here.
But one week after the unit started patrolling this neighborhood at night, the soldiers know where the checkpoints are, and the police recognize the small convoys as belonging to the ISAF.
ISAF soldiers patrol both day and night. The mandate granted to the ISAF by the United Nations is for six months, but is extendable. No one in the British unit believes the ISAF will depart Afghanistan after six months, although the paratrooper unit will stay in the country only for 90 days.
Other units in this multinational force, besides patrolling Kabul, are organizing training for a multi-ethnic, 600-man Afghan security force. In six weeks, the ISAF hopes to have prepared the First Battalion of the Afghan National Guard for duty. Back at base, some ISAF officers say they think it may take longer, since the six-week estimate is based on the time international forces in Sierra Leone took to train a similar local force. The difference, they say, is that in Sierra Leone the local soldiers spoke English.
For now, though, as the ISAF's presence in Kabul grows, the Afghans seem to be learning to appreciate these curious newcomers to their country, devastated by 23 years of war. The soldiers' biggest problem now seems to be gracefully declining the Afghans' constant offers of tea.