Rumsfeld assures Afghan leader of US assistance

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The Independent Online

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, flew into Afghanistan yesterday to rally troops, confirm Washington's support for Hamid Karzai's shaky coalition, and assure him that the US does not "covet" Afghan territory.

Mr Rumsfeld, the first senior member of the Bush administration to visit the country, arrived at Bagram air base. He was surrounded security men and soldiers, whose nervousness underlined US fears that despite the defeat of the Taliban its supporters might still launch an attack.

Such was the worry about the official's safety that the Defence Secretary did not venture the 22 miles to the capital, Kabul, for his meetings but stayed in the airport complex.

Mr Rumsfeld was warned before climbing down from an American military jet not to step off concrete surfaces into the surrounding fields because the area was peppered with land mines.

He told Mr Karzai that America had no quarrel with the Afghan people. "The United States coveted no territory," he told the head of the interim government. We were here for the sole purpose of expelling terrorists from the country and establishing a government that would not harbour terrorism."

Mr Karzai replied that the Afghan people were thankful for American aid. He said: "We were incapacitated earlier to deal with so many things at once in the country. You came on board and provided help for us – provided the opportunity that we wanted."

But Washington was disappointed in one respect. It had hoped Mr Rumsfeld's visit would coincide with news that Osama bin Laden had been captured or killed with the fall of the last of the al-Qai'da cave complexes in Tora Bora, eastern Afghanistan.

In the event, Mr Rumsfeld had to concede to US troops that without the leading suspect in their hands, they would not be going home soon. "There's no way to know how long it will take to find [the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed] Omar, and to find bin Laden and to find the senior al-Qa'ida leadership and see that they're punished," he said. "We're not leaving till we get the job done."

The visit allowed Mr Rumsfeld to meet Major General John McColl, who is leading a team of British, French, Canadians and Italians in final preparations for the deployment of a multinational peace-keeping force.

There have been serious differences between Washington and London over the deployment of peace-keepers. America is believed to have blocked earlier plans to send a large British contingent.

There are also differences between the US and the new Kabul government over the size of the international force. Afghanistan's designated Defence Minister, Mohammed Fahim, said he wanted no more than 1,000 foreign troops. Washington wants a larger force.

Mr Rumsfeld told troops at Bagram air base that he envisaged "a relatively small force, taking 3,000 to 5,000 at most". He said the force, mandated by the UN-sponsored power-sharing agreement reached nearly two weeks ago in Bonn, would comprise forces from four to five countries and would not include America.

The Northern Alliance is lobbying for a smaller number owing to fears that its victory over the Taliban will be diluted by the presence of a substantial foreign military force.

The Alliance has even objected to the intended name, International Security for Afghanistan Force, wanting the word "force" replaced by the softer-sounding "mission".

The Northern Alliance's doubts about an international force are not shared by most people in Kabul. They would probably welcome foreign troops because of long memories of the civil war between 1992 and 1996, which reduced half the city to ruins. They recollect that several of the factions now forming the Northern Alliance played a leading role in the fighting. The UN wants the force to be in place by 22 December, when the new interim administration takes office.

Tony Blair is due to announce details of the British deployment in the Commons today. Britain is expected to raise a total force of 1,000, which will be based in Kabul. The commanders face the sensitive task of maintaining a presence in the capital without offending Afghan sensibilities.

The bulk of the British contribution will be from marines of the 3 Commando Brigade and paratroops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, as well as supporting teams of logistics, engineers and medics. The mission is expected to stay in Afghanistan for three months.

Gen McColl said, "This is an immensely complicated task and I do not underestimate the level of difficulty in such a deployment, by air, over such long distances."