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Afghan Peacekeepers Reinforced
A reinforced British-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, will this month seek to test the strength of its limited mandate in Afghanistan, in the face of dogged resistance from key figures in the new provisional government.
President Bush, meanwhile, gave an important sign of his commitment to the peacekeeping effort on January 1 by appointing Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, as his Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan.
Formerly a national security adviser, Khalilzad played a key role in shaping the Bush administration's policy towards Afghanistan both before and after September 11.
It took ISAF's British commanding officer, General John McColl, two weeks of negotiations with defence minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim before they were able to hammer out the Military Technical Agreement, MTA, that defines the duties and limitations of the peacekeeping force.
Fahim is one of the eight Tajiks from the former Northern Alliance - now known as the United Front - with portfolios in the 30-strong government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.
Not all the details of the MTA agreement - which was signed last Friday - have been made public, but the ISAF's sphere of military operations has been officially restricted to guaranteeing security in Kabul and at the city's civil airport. The latter is expected to be operational in the next week or so. It is to play a major logistical role in bringing ISAF up to full strength.
The limited 300-strong ISAF contingent is projected rise to a complement of 3-5,000 men by the end of January, of whom 1,500 will be British and 1,200 German. Some 15 other countries have committed men to the force's initial six-month mission, including France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Jordan, Bangladesh and Argentina.
Under the MTA, the Northern Alliance forces which occupied the capital after the Taleban fled on November 12 and have patrolled it ever since, will return to barracks. They will only re-emerge armed to take up duties alongside ISAF personnel.
General McColl appears happy with the arrangements. He recently told representatives from 11 of the 17 countries that are due to send units to Kabul, "There's no problem. Defence minister Fahim has shown himself ready and willing to work with us."
This was not always the case. Fahim initially resisted any foreign presence in Kabul, as did foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, another Northern Alliance stalwart, who made a last-ditch attempt on December 17 to have ISAF's mandate restricted to Chapter VI of the UN Charter, which precludes the use of force.
When the UN Security Council insisted on ISAT's right to shoot back, under Chapter VII of the charter, Fahim promptly responded by calling for a six-month limit to the international mission's term.
Karzai quickly pulled the rug from under his recalcitrant colleagues by stating unequivocally that foreign troops would stay "as long as we need them, six months at the minimum".
Karzai's selection as prime minister after December's Bonn talks on Afghanistan owed as much to his Pashtun origins as his close ties with ex-king Zahir Shah and the United States.
As head of the transitional government, he is expected to build bridges between Kabul and the Pashtun leaders in the south who formerly supported the Taleban and now find themselves dangerously excluded from the transitional government, whose most influential portfolios are in the hands of the largely-Tajik Northern Alliance.
Ostensibly deployed to ensure the continuation of Karzai's government, ISAF's second unspoken mission goal is to prevent the transitional government from being hijacked by the United Front.
Two days after his inauguration, Karzai appointed Uzbek General Rashid Dostum deputy defence minister, apparently in response to his complaints that Uzbeks had been allocated insufficient power and portfolios in the new administration. Similar complaints have been voiced by leading members of the Hazara ethnic group, though not by Ismael Khan of Herat, whose son, Mirwais Sadeq, was made a minister.
Dostum has seen his political stock rise ever since the commencement of US bombing raids on October 7, which led to his collaboration with US General Tommy Franks first over the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif, his power base, and the subsequent siege of Kunduz. As a practised hand at working with foreign forces, his appointment bodes well for relations with the British-led ISAF mission.
This could prove to be important, as local fighters are expected to collaborate with the Western military force - as they did in the attacks on Mazar, Kandahar and Tora Bora - to clear Afghanistan's major trunk routes of bandits who could potentially disrupt the delivery of aid and material for reconstruction.
Michael Griffin is author of Reaping The Whirldwind - The Taleban Movement in Afghanistan.
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