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Afghanistan: ISAF Troops Receive Warm Welcome From Kabul Residents

International peacekeepers have now been in the Afghan capital, Kabul, for more than three months. Despite initial concerns that the multinational troops would be targeted by hostile groups, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky -- who went on patrol with a group from the force's Dutch contingent -- reports that the pessimists have so far been proven wrong.

Kabul, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the United Nations Security Council mandated a multinational security force to help maintain stability following the establishment of an interim government in Afghanistan, some Western observers warned that any foreign peacekeepers would face certain disaster in a country still brimming with weapons and rife with political infighting.

But so far the soldiers from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain comprising the bulk of the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) appear to have received a friendly reception in the Afghan capital. Afghan authorities have praised ISAF for bringing stability and a sharp decrease in crime to Kabul, and both interim officials and Western leaders have called for the force's mandate to be extended past its six-month, Kabul-only designation.

ISAF personnel carry out a range of tasks, including the training of Afghan soldiers for the country's national army and disposing of some of the millions of mines and unexploded shells littering the war-torn country. Earlier in March, three German and two Danish ISAF soldiers were killed when a missile they were handling exploded.

The most visible of ISAF's duties is carrying out day and night patrols throughout Kabul. The daytime patrols typically draw friendly waves and shouts from Kabulis. ISAF spokesman Dutch Army Captain Henk Asma says there has so far been only one attack on an ISAF patrol group, and that the vast majority of Afghans have welcomed the presence of the multinational force: "Most local people are very friendly. I think they see us as their last chance to [stabilize] Afghanistan."

At night, the ISAF patrols take on a different character, as Kabul's streets empty in observance of the 2200 to 0500 curfew that has been in place since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

On a recent evening, six soldiers from the Dutch 11th Air Mobile Brigade -- which has contributed some 220 troops to ISAF -- ventured out in two Mercedes-Benz jeeps to patrol the Kabul's southeast sector and provide support to other Dutch and German patrols in case of attack. The soldiers are on the alert for any signs of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters possibly still remaining in the city.

At night, Kabul's silent, uneven roads and devastated buildings take on an air of menace. There are no street lights and severe electricity shortages mean few lamps are lit inside Afghan homes. Periodically, the silence is broken by a shout from an Afghan policeman at one of Kabul's many checkpoints. After the ISAF patrol leader responds with a password, the group proceeds.

Some of the patrols take Afghan police officers with them. Spokesman Asma says the Afghan police have a reputation for treating harshly any civilians found breaking the curfew, often resorting to physical abuse. Asma says ISAF is trying to break the local force of that custom, a step he hopes will help eventually restore Afghans' respect for their own police force: "We're trying to give the local police some authority, and we are trying to lead them into some kind of understanding of how European police work."

Asma says working alongside ISAF patrols seems to have had a positive effect on Afghan police: "We at least give them food for thought. But there is a whole scheme to training the Afghan police. Actually the Germans are [leading efforts] to train the police, and we have our little successes."

The soldiers make periodic stops to scan the streets with night-vision binoculars. After the fall of the Taliban government -- which doled out stiff punishment for theft, usually amputating hands and feet -- burglaries rose dramatically in Kabul, especially at night. The ISAF patrols hand over to the Afghan police any apparent thieves they apprehend on their rounds.

On this particular night, the Dutch soldiers notice flashlight beams surrounding a house half a kilometer away. The patrol's jeeps part ways to approach the site from different directions. In the end, the soldiers come upon two startled Afghan security guards hired by Kabulis to stand watch outside their homes. The patrol departs with friendly waves on both sides.

One of the patrol soldiers says that before 11 September he knew nothing about Afghanistan and never imagined he would someday serve there. He said he and the other soldiers in the Dutch contingent received lectures on Afghan culture and history before departing for Kabul. The intention, he says, was to help foster goodwill with Afghan civilians -- something he feels has been largely successful: "The people are very friendly. Hospitality. [They] always want to give you something -- tea, cookies, something like that. Without war, it's a beautiful country. Mountains and everything around. The war destroys everything. So people are very glad that we are here, I think. I think if a lot of people say you have to leave, [then] we are here for nothing. And when they say 'It's good you are here,' it's good for us. We're working here."

Afghanistan's interim government has praised ISAF. Afghan Army Colonel Abdul Wali says the presence of the international security force is vital for Afghanistan's stability: "We are very pleased about the presence of the peacekeepers here in Kabul. The night patrolling is very fruitful and beneficial for the city because of its effect on crime. The numbers of thieves have fallen by about 90 percent and ordinary people are very happy with the presence of ISAF in Kabul."

Interim leader Hamid Karzai has repeatedly asked that additional ISAF forces be sent beyond Kabul to other key Afghan cities. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan says he expects the UN Security Council to extend the mandate of the international force beyond its original term limit in June. But the UN head also says the Council is still discussing whether to deploy ISAF troops beyond Kabul.

Officials from Turkey, Britain, and the United States, meanwhile, are meeting in Ankara today to discuss possibilities for Turkey assuming command of the peacekeeping force from Britain at the end of April. Turkish officials say they want to determine whether the country will receive enough military and financial support to take over the ISAF command. Turkey is the only Muslim country participating in the peacekeeping operation.