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NATO Takes Over International Security Force in Kabul

The transfer could mean troops will try to impose order in Afghanistan's countryside, the terrain of warlords and remnants of the Taliban.

August 12, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — The NATO alliance took command of an international security force in this capital Monday, prompting new pleas for troops to deploy in large parts of the country racked by violence and warlords.

President Hamid Karzai, international aid agencies and United Nations officials have repeatedly asked foreign troops to leave the relative safety of the capital and patrol the countryside.

Karzai's failure to persuade foreign allies, particularly the U.S., to spread troops across Afghanistan has not only weakened him in the eyes of many Afghans, but undermined his effort to assert authority over the whole country.

His spokesman, Ahmad Jawaid Lodin, suggested Monday that the change to a NATO command could help Afghanistan make its case for an expanded presence.

"That will make discussions easier," he told reporters. "That will make it possible to review, from time to time, what the situation is and what the needs are."

"At the moment, there isn't a specific request being made," he added. "But we will be talking to them and reflecting on the situation together."

NATO forces took control from the International Security Assistance Force, which was established following the U.S.-led victory over the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime in December 2001 and includes soldiers from 31 countries.

It is the first time the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has deployed troops outside Europe, where the group was created as a defense against the former Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War.

As NATO was taking over command of Kabul's security, a group of peaceful demonstrators near the U.S. Embassy chanted "Expel the foreigners!" and "Down with the U.S.!"

NATO Lt. Gen. Goetz Gliemeroth, a German, took over from other German and Dutch officers who have led the 5,000-plus international force for the last six months. U.S. troops continue to search for Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in remote areas bordering Pakistan.

The new NATO command will have no immediate effect on the size of the force or its U.N. mandate, the alliance said, stressing that it wants to have a smooth transition.

In October, the security force will be responsible for ensuring a peaceful meeting of a loya jirga, or grand council, that is to draw up a new constitution in advance of nationwide elections set for June.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck reportedly favors expanding the security force beyond Kabul, but he didn't press the issue in his speech at the hand-over ceremony.

"The task ahead is to continue building democratic structures," Struck said. "Afghanistan must not lapse back into anarchy and chaos. And Afghanistan must not again become the home of global terror, as was the case under the rule of the Taliban."

Suspected Taliban guerrillas have launched a series of deadly attacks in recent months in the south and east of Afghanistan, where they still have support among many ethnic Pushtuns who feel alienated from Karzai's government.

Although Karzai is also a Pushtun, the interim government he leads is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, less populous ethnic groups. Afghan officials say Taliban fighters are using neighboring Pakistan as a rear base from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

On Saturday, U.S. troops killed a suspected Taliban fighter and detained three other people for questioning in the eastern province of Paktia, part of the Pushtun heartland, American officials said Monday.

The day before, the U.N. announced that it had ordered its staff not to travel by road in a large region of southeastern Afghanistan where Taliban guerrillas have targeted aid workers, Afghan security forces and foreign troops.

Suspected Taliban guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns at a government checkpoint last Tuesday in the southern province of Kandahar, wounding five Afghan police officers. Attackers tied up and beat Afghan staff at a local aid agency compound that night.

Two days later, 40 suspected Taliban gunmen killed six Afghan soldiers and an Afghan driver for Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based aid group, during an assault on a government office in nearby Helmand province.

The U.N. travel ban applies to the provinces of Uruzgan and Zabol, as well as northern parts of Helmand and Kandahar, some of the country's poorest regions, where a shortage of aid feeds disaffection with Karzai's government and its foreign allies.

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