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Afghanistan: Declarations Signal Rethink Of Short-Term Mission

Recent announcements by the key international players in Afghanistan show that policymakers are rethinking the feasibility of a short-term international presence in the country. The declarations also reveal expectations that fighting in the country is likely to continue at least into the spring.

Prague, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's tense security situation has resulted in a series of political delays and fresh troop deployments by the key international players in the country.

Britain, the United States, the United Nations, and the former king of Afghanistan have all made announcements in recent days that highlight these security concerns.

Taken together, the declarations indicate that policymakers are rethinking the feasibility of a short-term international presence in Afghanistan.

They show that the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan expects its battle against Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters to continue at least into the spring.

They also suggest that beyond the optimistic rhetoric of those backing the Bonn agreement, there is little hope for a speedy resolution to Afghanistan's ethnic, tribal, religious, and factional divisions.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has formally announced that Britain will continue to lead the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul beyond mid-April. It is the second time that Britain has extended its original three-month leadership role in ISAF.

London initially had hoped to hand over ISAF command to Turkey in March. That date was pushed back to mid-April when it became clear Turkey was not yet prepared for the complex mission. Straw said yesterday that Britain now plans to continue leading ISAF indefinitely because Ankara has yet to resolve the issue of how it will finance a leadership role.

Straw's remarks came as an advance party of elite Royal Marines arrived in Afghanistan as part of Britain's largest deployment of combat troops since the 1991 Gulf War.

More than 100 members of the British logistics team arrived at Bagram air base north of Kabul yesterday -- just a week after British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon announced that 1,700 combat troops will be sent to Afghanistan to fight beside U.S.-led troops.

The Royal Marines will operate outside of the UN-mandated ISAF mission. They are expected to be on the ground and ready for combat by mid-April.

Royal Marines Sergeant Steve Melbourne says special training in mountain combat makes the force well suited to missions similar to Operation Anaconda -- the U.S.-led attack in early March on Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan's mountainous eastern provinces of Paktia and Khost.

"The members of 45 Commando Royal Marines are specialized in mountain and cold weather warfare. They train regularly in Norway for three months at a time. The size of this force -- 1,700 guys -- is quite a potent force to bring into an operation like this. And therefore, to be able to work alongside the U.S. forces, as well, will give them a good steer on both sides," Melbourne says.

Hoon says the battle group will likely stay in Afghanistan for three months. But he also warned that the troops could stay longer -- and that additional British combat deployments may prove necessary.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney also signaled that a long fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban may be in store. Cheney said yesterday that U.S. intelligence shows Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are regrouping in order to launch fresh attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

"We see movement. We saw, obviously, the coalescing of a group in the area where we launched Operation Anaconda. There are still Al-Qaeda scattered around Afghanistan. There are, I'm sure, going to be efforts by them to try to organize themselves enough so that they can launch an attack, at least, on our forces in Afghanistan. We see it in intelligence to that effect."

Meanwhile, over the weekend, the return of Afghanistan's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was postponed for the third time due to "security risks" in Kabul.

In early December, when the Bonn accords were being signed, Zahir Shah said that he would return to Kabul as a private citizen before solar new year celebrations on 21 March -- known as Norouz. The ex-king pushed back that date to late March as Norouz approached. Yesterday, the Italian government announced another delay. Zahir Shah now says he will be in Kabul by April.

But Italian Foreign Ministry sources say privately that the ex-king asked for more time and better preparations because of concerns for his own safety.

The Bonn agreement calls for Zahir Shah to convene a grand council of tribal elders -- known as a loya jirga -- by June. The loya jirga would be tasked with choosing the transitional authority that takes over from Afghanistan's interim administration.

Despite declarations by Zahir Shah and his supporters that he is a unifying force for all Afghans, he is, in fact, an ethnic Pashtun from the southern part of the country. That makes the convening of the loya jirga a critical date in the rivalry between the interim administration's ethnic Pashtuns and the ethnic Tajiks from Afghanistan's northern Panshir Valley.

The Panshiris dominate the interim administration, and they are closely watching the formation of the loya jirga for clues on whether their domination will extend to the transitional authority. Zahir Shah's latest postponement is fueling allegations of a possible plot by the Panshiris to prevent his return.

In fact, the Panshiri-controlled Defense and Interior ministries ultimately are responsible for Zahir Shah's security arrangements in Kabul.

Concerns about the possibility of a plot against Zahir Shah began to surface in mid-February after high-ranking members of the interim administration's Panshiri faction were arrested for the assassination of the civil aviation minister.

In Afghanistan's western province of Nimruz, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says two Iranian-run refugee camps that were due to close this month will remain open at least until mid-April.

Bruno Jochum, the UNHCR representative in Iran, says there are not yet satisfactory transportation and security arrangements for the 11,000 refugees at the "Makaki" and "Mile 6" camps on Afghanistan's border with Iran.

The French organization Medecins sans Frontieres also has expressed concern about contingency plans for the refugees -- particularly in light of anticipated future fighting.