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Afghanistan: Turkey Sending Delegation To Kabul Ahead Of Possible ISAF Takeover

A delegation from Turkey's General Staff is scheduled to leave for Afghanistan tomorrow to study the military situation in Kabul. The decision, which comes after weeks of talks with Britain and the United States, may signal that Turkey is moving closer to taking over the leadership of the international force deployed last December to protect the interim administration that succeeded the Taliban regime. But Ankara is still seeking assurances that all its demands will be met.

Prague, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After lengthy negotiations with the United States and Britain, Turkey has signaled that it could soon take over leadership of Afghanistan's 4,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

In a statement issued yesterday through the semi-official Anadolu news agency, the Turkish Army General Staff said a three-member reconnaissance team would leave for Afghanistan tomorrow to pave the way for the possible takeover and the subsequent deployment of a large military contingent in the capital, Kabul.

The statement said the advance team, headed by Major General Akin Zorlu, would "observe the situation on the field and coordinate operations with officials currently in charge of the ISAF command."

Echoing another statement released last week (29 March) by the National Security Council -- Turkey's main decision-making body that includes both civilian and military officials -- the General Staff said Ankara had agreed "in principle" to head the ISAF. However, it did not say whether all of Turkey's conditions had been met.

NATO member Turkey, which already has some 260 troops in Kabul as part of the ISAF, has long been tipped as the most likely successor to lead the force when Britain's mandate expires in June. London would like to hand over command soon, but Turkey has stalled in committing itself, citing concerns about the scope and the mandate of the force.

The United Nations Security Council said last week (27 March) that ISAF's mandate should be extended when it expires on 20 June, but no official resolution has been passed. Turkey insists that the force has a clear international mandate before it assumes its leadership.

Talking to reporters last week (25 March), Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit also made it clear that Ankara does not wish the force to operate beyond Kabul province and that security enforcement outside the capital should be left to an all-Afghan force.

"First and foremost, it is necessary to set up an Afghan national army. More importantly, it is necessary that, in Afghanistan, Afghan soldiers carry out their duty. Only with the help of [its own] soldiers can every country defend itself."

There is concern that violence could break out among Afghanistan's various tribal leaders when the interim administration of prime minister Hamid Karzai steps down in June. Hence the necessity to create a national army that should, in principle, help foster peace in the war-torn country.

However, there is no timetable for creating this national army. The interim administration remains far behind the recruitment schedule announced earlier this year by interim Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni.

Although Qanooni has said 29,000 troops should be ready by June, the ISAF has begun providing basic training for only 600 members of Afghanistan's future armed forces.

Both Karzai and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would like the mandate of the ISAF be expanded to other cities than Kabul, but most contributing countries oppose such an idea.

Turkey, which is battling its worst economic crisis since World War II, is also seeking firm assurances that the international community would share the financial burden implied by its taking over the ISAF command.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney pledged last month (19 March) that Washington would contribute an aid package worth $228 million to that end.

Cheney said $28 million would go toward Turkey's leadership of the force, and the remaining $200 million would be used for other as yet unspecified purposes. But Ecevit last week acknowledged that no understanding had been reached between Ankara and Washington on how the bulk of this financial help would be spent.

"There is no clear understanding. What Cheney has said is that Turkey would be paid $200 million and an additional $28 million, [which] would be directly connected with the expenses of [our] military units. However, nothing definite has been said regarding the $200 million. But (Cheney) told me that Turkey would definitely be paid."

A week ago, Ecevit hinted at remaining disagreements with the U.S. and Britain over conditions Turkey had requested to lead the ISAF: "We are currently at the evaluation stage. There is a general desire to see Turkey undertaking security in Afghanistan -- rather in Kabul -- but in order to fulfill this mission certain conditions have to be met. Talks regarding them are almost completed. But we have certain wishes and we are still insisting on them. In all probability, the situation will become clear in the coming days."

A final decision regarding Turkey's taking over the ISAF leadership was to have been reached at a cabinet meeting yesterday, but no announcement was made.

Addressing reporters after the meeting, the chief government spokesman, State Minister Yilmaz Karakoyunlu, said the U.S. Congress had not yet approved the $228 million financial package. Reuters quotes Karakoyunlu as saying both Ecevit and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, at the meeting, expressed their belief that the U.S. must intervene in the issue.

In addition, a number of technical hitches reportedly remain to be clarified before Turkey agrees to take over from Britain.

Ankara's mainstream newspapers today quote diplomatic and military sources as saying the General Staff is seeking assurances that Turkish troops would be granted logistical support to carry out their mission. Turkey's military planners are looking into the possibility of transporting troops on U.S. and British cargo planes. They would also like British soldiers to leave behind some communications equipment and facilities.

Turkish media yesterday reported that, should an agreement be reached, Ankara might dispatch up to 1,000 soldiers to Afghanistan by early June.

Ankara's possible takeover from Britain will be one of the main topics on the agenda of Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai when he visits the Turkish capital later this week (5 April).