British troops roll into Kabul to set up headquarters

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The last few times British troops ventured into Kabul from their base at Bagram were photo opportunities for an increasingly impatient media.

But this time it was for real. At first light a convoy of trucks with members of the Third Division rolled through the streets to take over the building which will become the main headquarters of the long-delayed multinational force.

The old military sports centre was built during the days of King Zahir Shah as a country club for the officers. In the chequered history of Afghanistan this has turned out to be from a number of armies, including the Russians and the various militias who fought for the scraps after they lost and left.

It is from this shattered complex, now littered with the twisted and burnt remains of tanks and armoured cars that the International Security Assistance Force will attempt to keep a fragile peace in the Afghan capital.

Under yesterday's Military Technical Agreement (MTA), thrashed out after weeks of negotiations, a British-led force of about 4,500 troops will be based in Kabul. The first patrols, by members of the Second Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, will begin on Thursday.

But also here will be the soldiers and armour of the Northern Alliance, in breach of the UN-sponsored Bonn Agreement, which stipulated that they should leave Kabul. The Agreement stated "the participants in the UN talks on Afghanistan pledge to withdraw all military units from Kabul and other urban centres or urban areas in which the UN-mandated force is deployed."

But the Alliance-dominated Afghan government has chosen to interpret this, literally in the translation from English into Dari, as meaning the streets of Kabul rather than the city. They have insisted, and the international negotiators have had to accept, that as long as they are not actually on the streets, the Alliance can have as many soldiers and tanks as they like in Kabul. For several days British diplomatic and defence sources have been saying that the delay in concluding the MTA was simply due to translation problems. Last night a senior military source said: "This has been one of the differences between the English version and the Dari version."

The Bonn Agreement also stated that the international force "will assist in the maintenance of security for Kabul and its surrounding areas. Such a force could, as appropriate, be progressively expanded to other urban centres and areas." However, senior military sources said last night there were no plans at present for such an expansion. Senior members of the Afghan government and regional warlords are opposed to the ISAF deploying outside the capital. Ismail Khan, the warlord running western Afghanistan from Herat, told The Independent that international forces will not be allowed into his territory.

Demilitarisation was another requirement from Bonn. Senior defence sources said last night that was a matter for the interim government of Hamid Karzai, although the ISAF will be ready to help where necessary.

The ISAF will be under overall US command, but a British officer, Major General John McColl, will be in charge of the force on the ground. His deputy, yet to be appointed, will also be British, and Britain, as the lead nation, will also provide upwards of 1,500 troops, including the Second Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and the 16 Air Assault Brigade.

The Germans have complained in the past, both about being answerable to the Americans, and also because, they claimed, the British were taking all the best jobs. However, they are expected to be among the 17 nations who will contribute to the force. Over the next few days about 40 military personnel from these countries will be carrying out reconnaissance missions in Kabul.

ISAF troops will carry out patrols with Afghan government soldiers, in effect Tajik soldiers of the Northern Alliance, and each group will be commanded by its own officer. Senior military sources last night refused to discuss the ISAF rules of engagement, but said "they will be robust". Under the MTA, the multinational force will help to reconstruct the country.

RAF personnel are already repairing Kabul airport, which will provide two of the five bases for the ISAF.

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