NATO faces first 'out-of-theatre' mission in Afghanistan
By Mike Patterson

KABUL: NATO prepares to take over command of Afghanistan's foreign peacekeeping force in its first operation outside Europe amid deteriorating security and warnings that the Taliban is regrouping in the war-ravaged country.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on Monday assumes command of the 4.600-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which is helping with security and reconstruction in the Afghan capital.

While outgoing ISAF commander Lieutenant General Norbert van Heyst Wednesday described Kabul as a "safe haven," he warned that the international community must act to address increasing attacks in the provinces.

"What I really want to do is to wake up the international community to do each and every thing to provide security in the provinces," the German general said at his farewell press conference.

Attacks have increased in the former Taliban heartland of south and southeast Afghanistan, where the regrouping of the hardline militia and extremists linked to renegade former premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are the main problem facing the country, he said.

And even in the "safe haven" of Kabul, the joint German-Dutch command ends after six months in which four German soldiers were killed and 29 others injured by a suicide car bomber in the worst ever attack on the peacekeepers.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan last week also warned that deteriorating security was the main challenge facing Afghanistan as it struggles to emerge from decades of war.

"The deteriorating security situation is identified as the main challeng! e facing the Afghan peace process and the international community is called upon to continue its strong engagement in Afghanistan," Annan said in his quarterly report on the central Asian nation.

"The overall security situation throughout Afghanistan remains fragile and, in many areas, exhibits signs of deterioration."

Annan said "terrorists said to be aligned with the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Hekmatyar have stepped up their activities." At least 60 people have been killed since the end of July in attacks by suspected Taliban fighters and their Al Qaeda allies and clashes with the militants, mostly in the south.

The United Nations and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have called for an extension of ISAF to the provinces but have been repeatedly rebuffed.

A separate US-led coalition force of some 12,500 troops is hunting the Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants.

Van Heyst said any decision on extending ISAF's mandate beyond Kabul was a question for politicians rather than the force.

Afghanistan has the lowest ratio of peacekeepers to population of any recent post-conflict country, according to a study by international humanitarian organisation CARE. While NATO's other missions in Kosovo and Bosnia had a ratio of one peacekeeper to every 48 and 58 people, respectively, the ratio for Afghanistan is one peacekeeper to every 5,380 Afghans.

The change of command from individual nations to NATO is expected to have little impact, with some 90 percent of ISAF troops already supplied by NATO nations. Non-NATO countries are expected to continue to contribute troops.

"ISAF will remain ISAF, doing the same job in the same way and with the same mandate," NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson said last month.

"NATO does not take on operations to fail. NATO has to succeed and we're determined to succeed."

NATO's assumption of command will however end the current search for a new lead nation every six months for the force.

ISAF currently has around 4,600 troops contributed by 15 NATO members and 15 non-NATO nations, ranging from 2,300 supplied by Germany to the handfuls contributed by smaller nations.

Canada is contributing 1,950 troops, who will replace some of the Germans currently serving.

From August 11 ISAF will be led by Lieutenant General Goetz Gliemeroth, chief of NATO's Joint Command Centre at Heidelberg, Germany, with Canadian Army Major General Andrew Leslie as his deputy.

[Source: Daily Times (Pakistan), Agence France-Presse, August 8, 2003]

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