Jordan and Turkey set to form core of Afghan force

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Jordan and Turkey will join European countries at an international conference in London today to determine the make-up of a multinational stabilisation force to be deployed in Afghanistan.

Their participation in the mini-summit confirms for the first time that the two Muslim countries will play a key role in the force deployed to support the new interim Afghan government, which takes power on 22 December. It comes as Hamid Karzai, the Prime Minister who must form an interim government by that date, began talks in Kabul yesterday with anti-Taliban leaders, many of whom view him with suspicion as the nominee of foreign powers.

Mr Karzai's main support is from the international community and he says he is willing to see a multinational UN-mandated force stationed around the country. The Northern Alliance leaders want to avoid this as it would dilute their victory over the Taliban.

The London conference will be attended by senior military figures from France, Spain, Italy and Germany as the coalition works out the composition of the British-led force. Representatives from the United States will also attend. The conference will assess the exact numbers of troops needed for the three-month remit. An announcement on Britain's lead in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force would not be made before Monday, Tony Blair's official spokesman said.

A small advance British team based at Bagram will review the situation this weekend and make recommendations on the size, shape and modus operandi of any international force. Major-General McColl, commander of the British 3rd Division, will lead a party of 12 British troop leaders in talks with the Afghan Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, and the Interior Minister, General Fahy.

The UN Security Council must adopt a resolution authorising the force and some Western diplomats said the council could act tonight, although diplomats said the five permanent Security Council members ­ the US, Britain, Russia, China and France ­ were continuing negotiations on the text of the resolution. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN, said: "I think the response that we're getting is fine on the principle, but there will be some discussion of the details."

Diplomats said the initial force was likely to be about 1,000 troops but it could grow to about 5,000 troops, depending on what the Afghans and the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi recommended. About 300 British troops are expected to form an advance guard in Kabul by Christmas. The interim force will be replaced by a UN peace-keeping force, which is unlikely to contain British troops because of political fears that they could be in place for many years.

The difficulty for the new Afghan administration is that although Mr Karzai has been appointed Prime Minister because he is a prominent Pashtun from Kandahar, he has no power base or troops of his own.

The former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani has said he thinks the Bonn agreement has been foisted on Afghanistan. He claimed that many who had fought the Taliban for years had not been suitably rewarded.