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Afghanistan: Effort To Build National Security Force Off To Slow Start

U.S. officials say building a strong Afghan national security force is the best way to prevent future fighting between rival warlords in Afghanistan. But as RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports, efforts to recruit and train such a force are behind schedule.

Kabul, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The process of recruiting and training a self-sufficient Afghan national guard has been going on for less than a month, but it already has fallen far behind schedule.

At the beginning of February, Afghan Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni announced a timetable that would lead to a self-sufficient Afghan national army of about 70,000 troops within one year.

Qanooni anticipated that the first 600 members of the force would be trained by mid-March, and he said he expected 29,000 troops to be ready by the time a transitional government is appointed by a Loya Jirga and assumes power in June.

"In the next 4 1/2 months, we will have a 29,000-strong trained security force. We are working to create a truly national force composed of people from all over the country. I believe, if what has been pledged by the international community comes in a timely manner, we will even be prepared in less than a year."

So far, the international community has kept up its side of the bargain. The British-led International Security Assistance Force has begun training recruits with the help of troops from Germany, Italy, France, and Turkey.

But the Afghan interim administration has been unable to recruit enough men to form even a first battalion of 600 troops.

ISAF spokesman Captain Graham Dunlop says training sessions launched in Kabul this week involve enough men to form about half a battalion. Only about 30 officers and 240 rank-and-file soldiers have signed up so far.

Despite the poor results, Dunlop says the lack of men does not reflect a lack of interest or apathy on the part of the Afghan Defense Ministry, which holds responsibility for recruiting troops for the national security force.

"We're approaching 300 soldiers currently in training. We have the capacity to train 600. But if you consider the infrastructure and the fact that the Ministry of Defense hasn't had to do anything like this since at least 1979, we're very pleased with the start that we've made."

Dunlop describes the goals of the recruitment process and how it has been carried out: "The selection and the screening of the soldiers taking part in training was done by the interim administration. They sent a directive to each province telling them that they should provide a particular number of soldiers. These soldiers will come from all ethnic backgrounds and the training will be fairly representative of all the peoples living in Afghanistan."

But so far, the structure of Afghanistan's future national army has yet to be agreed upon by the factions within the interim administration.

In fact, interim administration leader Hamid Karzai still has virtually no troops of his own to help him assert his authority over the rival warlords across the country. Karzai relies almost entirely upon ISAF to provide security within Kabul.

Karzai, speaking today in New Delhi at a joint news conference with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, vowed to bring peace to his war-torn country.

"Afghanistan will stand firmly against radicalism and terrorism and Afghanistan will continue to fight terrorism until it is finished. Afghanistan has suffered immensely at the hands of terrorism and radicalism and we thank all those nations that helped Afghanistan to fight this menace and remove it."

But how exactly Karzai will manage to wield control in Afghanistan remains unclear. His lack of substantial military support is in stark contrast to Jamiat-i-Islami -- the Northern Alliance faction that seized control of Kabul when the Taliban regime fled the city in November. Jamiat-i-Islami controls both the Defense and Interior ministries. It has tens of thousands of fighters deployed in the Afghan capital, as well as in the north and in the west of the country.

On the roads leading from Kabul to the Bagram airfield alone, RFE/RL's correspondent counted about a dozen functioning tanks of Jamiat-i-Islami. On their armor and at their checkpoints, those Northern Alliance troops are still flying the green, white, and black flag that had been used in 1992 when Jamiat-i-Islami founder Burhanuddin Rabbani sat in Kabul as the president.

Other warlords -- like ethnic Pashtun Padshah Khan Zadran in the southeastern province of Paktia, or ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif -- are bragging that they have tens of thousands of loyal fighters ready to do battle.

The concern in Kabul is that fighting between rival warlords may break out as soon as the spring thaw -- a time of year in which the launching of military offensives by rival factions has become an almost annual event.

For now, the interim administration is presenting a public image of unity. But U.S. officials have warned of internal pressures between the factions that comprise the interim government. They say that some warlords in the country may become dissatisfied with the political process of forming a transitional government during the spring -- and possibly resort to violence.