Peace force delayed by Alliance objections

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The Independent Online

The supposedly imminent deployment of a multinational peace-keeping force to Afghanistan was facing problems yesterday with reports of objections from the Northern Alliance about the numbers, the nature and even the name of the force.

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had to intervene with Hamid Karzai, the leader of the interim Afghan administration, and his senior colleagues during a flying visit to Afghanistan on Sunday. But Major General John McColl, the British officer sent to supervise the deployment, has returned home leaving a small team to continue the negotiations.

Tony Blair's failure to give an expected detailed account to the House of Commons of British forces being sent was a casualty of the last-minute uncertainties, according to diplomatic sources. A planned media access session with British soldiers at Bagram air base was cancelled because Mr Blair did not make the statement, saying only that Britain would contribute up to 1,500 to the force and was prepared in principle to lead it.

The US envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins, who reopened the US embassy in Kabul yesterday, admitted that obstacles remained to the British-led international force arriving. "When these issues are resolved the British will announce their willingness to lead the force,'' he said. Mr Dobbins added that Mr Rumsfeld had "addressed'' questions about the role of the peace-keepers "in a number of conversations'' with Alliance leaders.

The difficulties arise with only four days to go before the new administration takes office in Kabul. The United Nations has repeatedly stressed that the UN-mandated multinational force should be in place by that time to ensure that the political process is kept on track.

Northern Alliance leaders were said to be demanding that the multinational force should be limited in numbers and that there should be clarifications of their rules of engagement. They even want to change the word "force" to "mission'' in International Security Assistance Force.

Alliance leaders say the peace-keepers should be in small numbers, providing a token policing presence and training local Afghan forces. They want to clarify to what extent they will be allowed to take independent action, and under what circumstances they will be empowered to open fire.

Mr Dobbins said that the multinational force basing itself in the capital was "going to be a very large number and the issue of whether the force goes elsewhere has yet to be addressed". Nato defence sources, however, said the peace-keepers would number no more than about 5,000.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a senior UN peace-keeping official, has stated that the force should establish itself in the capital and "then expand progressively to other cities".

Major General McCall had two meetings with Mohammed Fahim, the Defence Minister in the new administration, as well as with Mr Karzai and the Interior Minister, Yunis Qanuni. British defence officials denied claims that the Afghan leaders had refused to meet Major General McColl until Mr Rumsfeld intervened.

Mr Dobbins said the presence of the multinational force was "a question of symbolism. It's a question of determining that Kabul doesn't belong to a single faction''. The US will have no presence on the ground in this force, its involvement limited to providing logistics and support. "I think we have seen our responsibility lie elsewhere," he said. "We also believe others who perhaps have not been able to make much of a contribution as they would have liked in the coalition against terrorism can now, and they welcome that opportunity.''