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UN: Official Says U.S. Will Expand Civil-Affairs Force In Afghanistan

The official responsible for coordinating U.S. policy toward Afghanistan says the United States plans to expand its deployment of civil-affairs soldiers with the aim of improving security and accelerating reconstruction efforts. Ambassador David Johnson says the move is an acknowledgment of security problems that remain in Afghanistan. His comments came as experts told a UN panel that security needed to be improved to maintain the legitimacy of the government of President Hamid Karzai.

United Nations, 19 November 2002 (RFE/RL) A top U.S. official says units of civil-affairs soldiers, currently deployed in Afghanistan to help in small-scale reconstruction projects, will be expanded to help address continuing security concerns.

Ambassador David Johnson told reporters in New York on 18 November that the civil-affairs teams would be more effective than an expanded force under UN auspices.

Johnson said there are currently about 600 civil-affairs soldiers working throughout the country. Their work has included reviewing infrastructure needs and building schools and municipal buildings.

Johnson could not say how large the expansion would be but said the units would aim to provide "area security" to create a more stable environment for reconstruction projects.

"What we believe is needed now is that those civil-affairs teams be beefed up a bit and can provide a greater degree of stability in the countryside and in the surrounding areas. That is, from our perspective, likely to be a more effective approach," Johnson said.

Johnson said U.S. officials envision their civil-affairs soldiers working with other troops from the international antiterror coalition currently in Afghanistan. He said they also hope to integrate newly trained members of the Afghan national army into the units sometime early in 2003.

The United States is leading an effort by dozens of states in training a national army for Afghanistan. They have begun training infantry battalions of about 500 men each to serve as the backbone of a force to help the central government eventually take control throughout the country.

But the effort is expected to take years, and Afghan leaders and top UN officials have urged the UN Security Council to expand authorization for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond the Kabul area.

Johnson repeated the U.S. position that it is not opposed to an expansion of ISAF. But he said most states are not interested in contributing to such an expansion.

The decision to expand the civil-affairs teams -- units of the U.S. Army Special Forces -- and widen their focus also appears to mark a departure from a policy of working with regional militia leaders as a way of maintaining stability. That policy came under strong criticism from groups such as Human Rights Watch, which said it permitted independent militia leaders - who hold power in many regions -- to abuse the rights of minorities under their control.

Johnson says that about 75-80 percent of Afghanistan is "pacified," with much of the remaining unrest limited to the southeast. The estimated 9,000 U.S. forces in the country continue to pursue small numbers of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Security concerns dominated a panel discussion on Afghanistan on 18 November in the UN General Assembly. An expert on Afghanistan at New York University, Barnett Rubin, told the panel that a lack of security in much of the country has hindered reconstruction and undermined the legitimacy of the government.

"Until the government is able to provide security and able to govern and deliver some benefits, no amount of elections of representative bodies will be sufficient to make it legitimate or to enable it to control the territory," Rubin said.

Johnson, who attended the panel discussion before briefing reporters, was more positive. He said that $1 billion-$1.5 billion in donor pledges has been delivered to the Afghan government -- although other groups and some Afghan officials say the amount of aid the country has received is far less. He noted the recent start of a crucial construction project -- a highway that will connect Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat.

He told reporters it's necessary both economically and politically for the Afghan population to see such projects underway to have confidence in their central government and the international community.

Johnson said despite the difficulties of the past several months, the authority and influence of the Karzai government has increased.

"As reconstruction and rehabilitation start to take hold, I think the influence and the support for the government by those outside of the capital has been growing and will grow more intense," Johnson said.

But that view clashed with the comments made at the UN panel by journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1979. Rashid said public perceptions are currently very negative and there could be backsliding into extremism if reconstruction is not accelerated.

"I think the perception inside Afghanistan is that the central government today is probably weaker than it was a year ago. And the perception is that the warlords are stronger than they were a year ago," Rashid said.

The UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, Jean Arnaud, told the panel that if security was not restored in the coming months, there could be a massive "defection" of the Afghan people from the Bonn process. That process envisions general elections in June 2004 preceded by widespread institution building, a national census and voter registration.