Afghan foreign minister backs suggestion to expand international force to about 20,000 troops in four or five cities

Saturday, February 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Afghanistan's foreign minister endorsed a suggestion that the international peacekeeping force in the country be quadrupled to 20,000 troops patrolling four or five cities.

The current U.N.-mandated force will number 5,000 soldiers at most and patrol only in Kabul, the capital.

The 20,000-troop suggestion emerged Friday from an off-the-recored meeting at the World Economic Forum that was attended by representatives of several governments _ including the United States and Iran, key U.N. officials, business leaders and organizations likely to join in reconstructing Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told The Associated Press after the session the interim government in Kabul agreed with the 20,000 figure mentioned by one high-level participant.

``For example, more or less 20,000 troops in four or five cities, like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kandahar'' would be a more realistic figure, Abdullah said.

Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai asked the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to expand the international force, saying it would signal a global commitment to a country brutalized by 23 years of war and neglect. He did not indicate the number of troops Afghanistan felt would be necessary.

His appeal represented an about-face for the new government, which had insisted before it took power five weeks ago that the force be restricted to Kabul, and environs.

But in the face of continuing instability, lawlessness, and fighting among warlords vying for power, Afghans are demanding greater security which Karzai called ``the foundation for peace, stability and economic reconstruction.''

``We want to see the extension and the expansion of (the international force), extension of it timewise, expansion of it locationwise, because it has been a factor for stability,'' Abdullah said.

The U.N. Security Council authorized the multinational force on Dec. 20 for six months to help protect Karzai's government as it was about to take power under a U.N.-brokered agreement.

The force is expected to reach its full strength of about 5,000 by the end of February. Britain will hand over command in March, most likely to Turkey.

Abdullah also supported a suggestion from the World Economic Forum meeting that the expanded force remain in Afghanistan for the duration of the 2 1/2 run-up to elections.

Karzai's interim government will hand over power in late May to a transitional government which will be chosen by a loya jirga, or grand council. That government will rule for 18 months, until elections are held.

Privately, some Security Council members oppose a major expansion of the force, arguing it would require deployment of a much larger number of troops for a long period. Diplomats noted that countries have not been rushing to contribute troops to the international force.

Sadako Ogata, the former U.N. high commissioner for refugees who is Japan's special envoy on Afghan reconstruction, said after the panel that ``security is very important'' to the country's future _ but the two big questions are ``soldiers and money'' for an expanded force.