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Afghanistan: ISAF Spokesman Discusses Britain's New Dual Military Role

The British government announced on 18 March that it will soon send 1,700 combat troops to fight alongside U.S. soldiers. Britain also leads the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the Afghan capital, Kabul. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky spoke to an ISAF spokesperson about the complications of a single army playing both peacekeeping and combat roles.

Kabul, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon yesterday announced his government will send 1,700 combat soldiers to join the U.S.-led forces participating in Operation Enduring Freedom, the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan.

British soldiers already lead the UN-mandated ISAF, the 18-nation security group tasked with maintaining peace and stability in Kabul. British peacekeepers currently make up 1,800 of the 4,500 total ISAF troops. Although Britain is scheduled to hand over command of the force, the most likely successor -- Turkey -- has so far appeared reluctant to assume the post.

RFE/RL asked ISAF spokesman, British Colonel Neal Peckham, if the arrival of British combat troops would expose their countrymen in ISAF to increased threat from Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Peckham said all foreign troops are at risk in Afghanistan, regardless of their mandate.

"We have taken notice of the threat from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban since our initial deployment. Clearly, if the situation changes on the ground, we will assess that threat [against] those changing circumstances. But we have always been aware. We are a multinational force, [and] you will see that quite separate from the British, there have been nations involved in Enduring Freedom who are also represented in the peacekeeping role with ISAF. So as an organization, we have been constantly monitoring that threat," Peckham said.

Peckham acknowledged, however, that it may be difficult for Afghans to recognized the different roles played by Britain's peacekeeping and combat troops.

"We are quite clear that [ISAF is] here to carry out our UN mandate 1386 in support of the [Afghan] interim administration. We are quite separate from Enduring Freedom and have also stated that is the case. We are aware of the potential for people to merge the two together in their eyes. But the operational location that the British force deploying will work out of is at Bagram [air base, located north of Kabul], and will be quite separate from us," Peckham said. "We will continue to operate with our ISAF badges on the soldiers' arms and with the vehicles marked with our ISAF badges as well. We will do all we can to indicate that these operations are quite separate in their roles and their activities."

Peckham outlined the different mandates of the two British forces: "In terms of Britain's commitments, there are two areas of the campaign planned that are being supported here. One, which the force going to Bagram will do, [is] involved with cutting the linkage to international terrorism within Afghanistan. [The other is] our role here, which is to bring the Afghan nation back into the international fold."

ISAF spokesman Peckham would not comment on whether British peacekeepers would come to the aid of their compatriots in combat in case of emergency. "It's clearly not the case at the moment," Peckham said. "We have a clear mandate and a clear role, and it's quite separate."