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Afghanistan: Despite U.S. Pledge, Building Of National Army Far Behind Schedule

The United States recently announced that it will soon help train an as-yet-nonexistent Afghan national army. But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the exact timetable and eventual size of the all-Afghan force remains unclear. Meanwhile, Afghanistan's interim Defense and Interior ministries continue to fall behind on the recruitment schedules they announced in February. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports that it appears unlikely the force will be large enough to meet the challenges it could face in June when the interim administration is due to hand over power to an Afghan transitional authority.

Prague, 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The refusal by the United States and the European Union to support a new UN mandate that expands the patrol areas of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has dashed Kabul's hopes for international peacekeepers to be deployed across the country.

French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte and U.S. representative James Cunningham made the position official on 26 March during an all-day meeting of the UN Security Council.

Levitte said the countries that have contributed troops to ISAF clearly oppose any geographic expansion of the mission beyond the borders of Kabul Province. But at the same time, there is no opposition to a six-month extension of the ISAF mission -- a move that would keep ISAF troops on the streets of Kabul into December.

The 26 March Security Council meeting highlights the need for work to move forward rapidly on the creation of an all-Afghan security force that can be deployed across the country.

There is deep concern in Afghanistan that violence could break out between different political, ethnic, or religious factions in the country around June. That is when, under the process outlined in December's Bonn agreement, a loya jirga is due to appoint a transitional authority to take over power from the interim administration.

The interim administration, led by Hamid Karzai, includes two main rival factions. On one side is Karzai and other ethnic Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan who support ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah as the head of the Transitional Authority. Karzai's so-called Rome Group has almost no security forces of its own to exert authority against its rivals.

Another key faction in the interim administration is composed mostly of ethnic Tajiks from the northern Panshir Valley. They seized control of Kabul against the recommendations of the UN and the United States when the Taliban fled the capital in November.

Although the Panshiris form only a small portion of Afghanistan's total population, their Jamiat-i-Islami party controls a disproportionate amount of power in the interim administration -- including the ministries of Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs.

Most of the armed Afghan forces in and around Kabul are Panshiris who had fought under the command of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud. They now have troops, tanks, and heavy artillery deployed on all sides of Kabul. Their forces also recently moved into the mostly ethnic Pashtun provinces of Paktia and Khost during the U.S.-led Operation Anaconda in early March.

Instead of the official green-red-and-black flag of the interim government, most of the Panshiri troops are flying a green-white-and-black banner at their checkpoints -- the official flag of Afghanistan during the early 1990s when Jamiat-i-Islami founder Burhanuddin Rabbani was running the country.

There also are numerous other warlords, religious leaders, and ethnic groups trying to gain power within the transitional authority. The fear is that violence could erupt from within any one of several factions that sees itself as receiving an unfair share of power.

Levitte told the UN Security Council that the most important priority in Afghanistan now is to create and train an all-Afghan security force that is "free of ethnic or regional divisions, warlords, and the games of political groups."

Afghanistan's interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah also mentioned the concerns about factional fighting when he spoke in Brussels on 26 March to a forum of the European Parliament: "The process of the formation, or building, of the national army and national police force has already started. There should be also a process for the demobilization and reintegration of the armed groups which are not a part of the national army and will not be a part of the national army."

Under the terms of the Bonn agreement, the process of recruiting the national security force remains under the control of the Defense and Interior ministries -- whose leaders in Jamiat-i-Islami already have the most powerful Afghan military force in the country.

While they have publicly acknowledged the security force is the single most important issue in the country, both ministries continue to fall steadily behind the recruitment schedule announced eight weeks ago by interim Interior Minister Mohammad Yunis Qanooni.

Qanooni initially said that an all-Afghan force of 70,000 soldiers should be trained and deployed across the country by the spring of 2003. More importantly, he said that 29,000 troops will be needed by June when the interim administration hands over power to the transitional authority.

Private defense analysts from the West have estimated that an army of at least 50,000 troops is needed to protect Afghanistan's borders and discourage the much-feared factional disputes.

But so far, British and German members of ISAF have begun providing basic training for a mere 600 Afghans in Kabul. Thousands of other potential recruits are waiting, idle and untrained, in tent camps or barracks.

On 25 March, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the United States also plans to help train new recruits -- possibly starting within four to six weeks: "While a training schedule is still being worked out, current plans call for training cycles of approximately 10 weeks each for a duration of something like 18 months for the first units. Training will include both individual military training as well as training at the squad, platoon, company, and battalion levels."

Rumsfeld said that only a small number of U.S. trainers will be used, and that most will be military personnel who are already in the country. He said questions that remain include the eventual size of the new Afghan army and how it will be financed: "As you may recall, there was no money raised at the Tokyo [aid] conference for the training and equipping and paying of the Afghan army -- which was unfortunate. The United States is going to work with some other countries to try to raise some funds for the purpose of training the Afghan army. And needless to say, the pace at which it happens and the size will be somewhat dependent on the success of that effort."

Rumsfeld also said that he hopes that Afghans will be able, within one year, to conduct training exercises themselves: "The plan is evolving. What we've decided to do is to try to get it started and be helpful with one piece [all at once]. But the total package has not been fleshed out."

General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the training of the Afghan army will serve as a positive step that helps ensure a better chance for peace and security in Afghanistan.

But with the training of the all-Afghan force now expected to take at least 18 more months, the U.S. effort looks as though it can prepare, at most, only a few hundred more Afghan soldiers by June.