Despite concentration on the situation in Iraq, the effort to rebuild and stabilize Afghanistan continues in the Middle East. German troops, soon to be in cooperation with NATO are replacing U.S. coalition forces in the northern Afghan town of Konduz.
Prague, 27 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An advance team of 27 German troops arrived on 25 October in the northern Afghan town of Konduz to launch the expansion of a NATO-led peacekeeping force beyond the capital Kabul.
German Colonel Kurt Schiebold said the unit will work with local Afghan forces to aid security and reconstruction efforts -- everything from protecting aid workers to rebuilding schools, hospitals, and roads.
"Our main task and our aim is, of course, to cooperate with the Afghan security forces to ensure that there is a safe environment for Afghans, United Nations staff, and members of other international organizations to do reconstruction work and provide humanitarian aid," Schiebold said. "And once we have completed our part of this task we want to return safely."
The troops are replacing a team of U.S. coalition forces working as part of a Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT), which was created to give coalition troops the ability to operate outside of Kabul without a UN mandate.
The troops are currently under direct German command, but by 1 January they are due to come under the command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The UN Security Council earlier this month approved expanding ISAF beyond the capital Kabul, where some 5,000 multinational troops are currently based.
The arrival of the advance German team comes just a day after the German parliament voted to approve their deployment and to extend its troops' ISAF mandate by one year.
Up to 450 German soldiers are expected to be serving outside Kabul by next spring, with Germany contributing a total of 1,800 troops to ISAF.
The deployment has been welcomed by Afghan residents of Konduz. The city, with an ethnically mixed population of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, is largely free of the factional fighting plaguing other regions of Afghanistan. But as one Konduz resident said, the arrival of the German troops will make the city even more secure.
"The security situation is absolutely fine here, but we want even better security in our city. So it is important that they are coming here," the resident said.
But some aid workers are wondering why peacekeeping troops have been sent first to one of Afghanistan's safest provinces when they are urgently needed in other parts of the country.
"We are concerned with these kinds of initiatives. Putting large numbers of troops in fairly safe areas -- the international community may perceive that as an adequate commitment to Afghanistan's security needs, but actually it's not really adequate. What we need to see is appropriately sized and mandated forces being put in the areas of the county where there are serious security concerns still," said Paul O'Brien, the Afghanistan coordinator for CARE International.
The German deployment comes as Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai officially inaugurated the disarmament process in Konduz, where hundreds of armed men handed over their weapons.
Although Konduz has been largely peaceful since the Taliban regime was forced from power in late 2001, the area remains one of the prime drug-producing regions in Afghanistan, the world's largest opium producer.
Fighting the drugs trade is not part of the Germans' mandate. But General Mohammad Daud, the local Afghan military commander, said the German troops will be asked to help fight local opium poppy farming.
Daud told the Agence France Presse news agency, "We don't need them for security, we need them because of opium."