Britain to Send

New York Times
December 18, 2001

Prime Minister Tony Blair said today that Britain would contribute up to 1,500 troops to an international peacekeeping force it has agreed to head up in Afghanistan. "Lead elements" should be in Kabul by the induction of an interim government on Saturday, he told the House of Commons.

Mr. Blair said that details were still being worked out at meetings in the Afghan capital but that the British commitment would not be an extended one. "At the moment, people are talking in terms of several months," he said, "so that would mean the British force is not there on a long-term basis. It is to get the security force going."

A Security Council resolution authorizing the force and giving it international legitimacy is likely to be passed at the United Nations later this week, he said.

Mr. Blair said that among the countries that had expressed interest in contributing troops were several European Union nations, which he did not identify, and Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Turkey.

The force would be led by Britain but operate under the overall command of the United States, which has promised "full logistical support," Mr. Blair said. "The fact is we are the nation best placed to give that leadership, which is why we have been asked to do it," Mr. Blair told the Commons.

He has been under some pressure to dispatch the peacekeeping force since last Tuesday, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell publicly welcomed Britain's decision to play the lead role after a meeting with the prime minister at 10 Downing Street.

An official who took part in talks here on Friday and then flew to Kabul estimated before leaving London that the size of the force would be between 2,000 and 6,000.

But difficult negotiations during the weekend in the Afghan capital may have reduced the final number to between 850 and 3,000, diplomats said.

At the reopening of the American Embassy building in Kabul today, the United States special coordinator, James F. Dobbins, said he expected "elements" of the British-led force to enter the city before the interim government takes power on Saturday under Hamid Karzai, 46, a Pashtun leader and relative of the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, 87.

"It will take longer than that for it to be fully deployed," he said.

The international force is a political lightning rod in Afghanistan, where the population overwhelmingly supports a large, powerful force, but some Northern Alliance military commanders and political figures have sought to limit it to 1,000 soldiers.

Supporters say such a small group would essentially cede control of Kabul to alliance-controlled police officers and soldiers.

American military officials have also indicated a preference for a smaller force, arguing that a large contingent of peacekeepers could complicate the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Dobbins said the other sensitive issue — the use of force by the international troops — had been raised at a series of meetings, including one on Sunday between Mr. Karzai, the head of the interim administration; Gen. Muhammad Fahim, its defense minister; and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "I don't anticipate difficulties," Mr. Dobbins said.

He said that an American general was taking part in the talks, but that only a small number of American soldiers would aid the force with logistics, intelligence and transportation. He said other countries could contribute to the force while the United States moved on to the next stage in the war on terrorism. He declined to say what the next stage would be.

A State Department official said the British were particularly concerned about gaining a clear definition of their role to avoid repetition of what they felt was an overly vague definition of their peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.

Other subjects under discussion were the assigning of responsibility for land mine sweeping, the protection of peacekeepers and rescue plans for any who are wounded, and the rules of combat under which they must operate.

"The fact that we are taking a bit of time to bolt down these issues and get things right should be seen as a signal of the seriousness with which we are approaching this and an indication of the complexity of the task," Mr. Blair's spokesman said.

Britain has been America's staunchest ally in the antiterror war and has special forces soldiers fighting alongside their American counterparts in Afghanistan. But there has been frustration in London over Washington's tepid response to Britain's effort to focus attention on the stabilization and rebuilding of Afghanistan.

The Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, a former Scots Guards officer, told Mr. Blair today that his party held "deep misgivings" about Britain's leading a peacekeeping force while the war continued.

"What concerns me," he said, "is there are still elements of Pashtun who are unhappy about the settlement, and there are, of course, going to be members of the Taliban who will take the opportunity to pick a target themselves in that peacekeeping process that may allow them to get their own back."

Mr. Blair responded that the world had an obligation born of past experience not to turn its back on Afghanistan. "If the international community walks away from Afghanistan now," he said, "it will make exactly the same mistake that was made 10 or 12 years ago when it left Afghanistan to become what it became: a failed state."

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