Britain says peacekeeping troops could be in Afghanistan by weekend

Monday, December 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Britain will lead an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and the first troops could be on the ground when a new interim government takes power this weekend if agreement is reached with local leaders, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday.

Addressing parliament, Blair said ``Britain is willing, in principle to lead such a force,'' which will initially help provide security in the Afghan capital, Kabul, but could expand its role to other parts of the country.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel announced Friday that the 15 European Union members would contribute up to 4,000 European troops to the security force.

London hopes the U.N. Security Council will approve the deployment of the force by the end of the week and Britain expects to contribute up to 1,500 troops, Blair said.

The prime minister said a number of details remain to be resolved, but several other nations had indicated they were willing to contribute troops including Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Turkey.

After initially putting thousands of British troops on standby to go to Afghanistan without any go-ahead to deploy, Blair hesitated for more than a week over taking leadership of the multinational force.

Some British officials are concerned about being sucked into a political quagmire, and the risk of Afghan factions turning against an international force.

``The fact is we are the nation best placed to give that leadership, which is why we have been asked to do it,'' Blair told the House of Commons.

But Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said he had ``deep misgivings'' about British involvement in any peacekeeping mission and called for any troop deployment to stipulate an exit strategy and a time limit.

Diplomats at the United Nations said Britain envisions leading the multinational force in a first phase that would last months rather than weeks or days _ and then handing over the lead position, preferably to a Muslim nation.

The lead elements of the force are expected to be in place by Saturday, when an interim administration led by Hamid Karzai will be installed.

Karzai arrived in London for talks with the British Foreign Office's two senior Afghan experts, Robert Cooper and Stephen Evans, Britain's former special envoy in Kabul. Karzai was making a brief stopover at London's Heathrow Airport on his way to Rome to meet with the exiled Afghan king, Zahir Shah.

Blair said details of the force must await the outcome of meeting in Kabul between a British military reconnaissance team led by Maj. Gen. John McColl and key figures in the new administration.

The U.N.-brokered agreement signed by four Afghan factions on Dec. 5 established an interim administration to govern for six months and called for a multinational security force in Kabul initially and possibly elsewhere later on.

Diplomats said members of the Security Council, which must authorize the force, were still debating how broad or specific the mandate should be.

The British have been trying to work out how the force will operate, and how it will interact with the U.S.-led force already on the ground fighting remnants of the Taliban and hunting for Osama bin Laden, the lead suspect in the Sept. 11 U.S. terrorist attacks. They also want Afghan approval for its deployment.

Afghanistan's post-Taliban government informed the Security Council Friday that it agreed to the deployment of the multinational force _ but under provisions that do not explicitly authorize its use of military force. Many council members want the force to be able to take military action if threatened, which could pose problems in adopting a resolution.

Blair said the rules of engagement for British troops in Afghanistan were yet to be finalized but pledged the force would be ``properly protected at all times''.

He said the peacekeeping force would play a crucial role in Afghanistan's transition phase following a ``brilliant victory'' over the ousted Taliban regime.

``That is a welcome liberation but we know that is only the start of enabling Afghanistan to cease being a failed state and become a responsible partner in the region,'' he said.