UK troops to lead interim peace-keeping force in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

Britain is preparing to lead an international force to stabilise Afghanistan for a three-month period during the launch of the interim government, before handing over to a larger multinational effort led by Turkey.

British involvement in the United Nations-backed "stabilisation force" for Afghanistan, including three battalions of troops and armoured vehicles, will be announced later this week, government sources indicated last night.

Downing Street wanted to announce the deployment today to coincide with the third month after 11 September and the visit to London of General Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State. But discussions with the interim authority in Afghanistan have delayed the statement because of concerns about the make-up of the force.

It is understood that the Northern Alliance is worried about Britain taking the lead role in the security force and wants troops from a Muslim country, probably Jordan, also to be deployed.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is expected to reveal the full details in a Commons statement this week, possibly on Thursday or Friday.

The force of 4,000 troops, headed by UK units, has to be in place to accompany the launch of the new Afghan government on 22 December. It is intended to stay only three months and then give way to the long-term, Turkish-led UN peace-keeping force.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said there was a need for a strong interim security presence in Kabul and other large Afghan cities. He denied that there would be any contradiction in allowing British forces that had taken an offensive role to be involved in such non-offensive capacities. "I don't think participating in the military conflict excludes us taking part in other military activities," he said.

Officials hope to secure a UN mandate for the force by the end of the week, and expect more detailed discussions to take place – at least informally – at the European Union's Laeken summit in Belgium on Friday and Saturday.

The options are limited because – apart from the United States – only Britain, France, Germany and Italy are likely to be able to get troops on the ground quickly. One well-placed source said: "Operationally the UK, Germany and France have the ability to go in tomorrow, so I think the aim would be to get in quickly and back that up with the Turks and Muslim forces as soon as possible."

General Powell is expected to discuss the composition of the force during his tour of European capitals. It is clear, however, that the US plans to reduce its troop numbers in Afghanistan. "We don't do peace," is how one American diplomat put it yesterday.

The size of the total deployment is also up for negotiation, and estimates have ranged from 5,000 to 35,000, although the eventual number will probably be in five figures. Without control of the environment in which it operates, the force will have to negotiate its presence and may have to limit troop numbers to satisfy local sensibilities.

Britain may contribute up to 3,000 ground troops, accompanied by armoured personnel carriers, with France likely to provide about 2,000, and a contingent from Italy. Yesterday Germany declared itself unable to command the mission, conceding that it could muster only a few hundred troops, increasing the likelihood that Britain will take the lead.

The Germans had been seen as the ideal leaders of the mission, at least in American eyes. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was among the first international statesmen to offer a military contribution, but his commitment triggered a rebellion among his generals.

After a meeting of Germany's "war cabinet", politicians tried to quell speculation that the Chancellor had suggested a major involvement. "This should not be a primarily German affair," declared Franz Müntefering, general secretary of the governing Social Democrats. "But Germany should be part of it." Uwe-Karsten Heye, the government's chief spokesman, suggested that Britain would be a far better choice. Britain could deploy troops more rapidly than Germany because the mission requires the approval of the German parliament, which cannot convene until the UN formally issues a mandate.

The opposition parties and the Greens have signalled that they would have no objection to a small-scale deployment.

Germany expects to contribute a battalion of between 800 and 1,200 to a peace force confined largely to Kabul, patrolling the airport and the main roads leading to the Afghan capital.

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