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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 13:46 GMT
Afghan security force's role unclear
Northern Alliance soldiers stand guard over Kabul
Local troops are to have the main responsibility
Jonathan Marcus

The mission of the new international security assistance force for Afghanistan is complex.

Many of the details of its exact role and composition are still unclear.

But what is obvious from the outset is that this is not a peacekeeping force as traditionally understood.

Its establishment will have the backing of the United Nations Security Council.

But its impact will depend more upon the political skills and sensitivities of its commanders than on their firepower.

British Major General John McColl
Major General McColl: In charge on site
This is going to be a low-key operation.

Troops with small arms and soft-skinned vehicles will guard key buildings and mount patrols in Kabul.

But their job is very much to assist the new Afghan authorities who retain ultimate responsibility for security.

This is a totally different concept to the robust peace-enforcement applied in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Maintaining the consent of the various factions on the ground in Afghanistan is a key concern which explains the relaxed approach: "berets rather than steel helmets" as one senior British officer put it.

But quite apart from the troops' limited mission the command arrangements for the force have also come under scrutiny.

UK role

A British major-general is to be the first force commander and in practical terms Britain will provide much of the initial headquarters and staff elements.

US General Tommy Franks
General Franks: Overall commander
But he will ultimately answer to General Tommy Franks who heads the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

This has caused unease among some potential troop contributors.

The German Government, for one, expressed fears that there could be some confusion between the two very different sets of operations going on under General Franks's overall command.

On the one hand there is the new security assistance force.

And on the other there are the continuing US and British efforts to track down al-Qaeda leaders.

Clear command structure

The view in London is that confusion need not arise.

Indeed, UK officials stress that a common commander is essential for precisely this reason - to ensure that there is proper coordination between the two distinct missions.

British Marines arrive in Afghanistan
UK marines will protect General McColl
While the first UK troops into Kabul will be Royal Marines of 40 Commando, the Ministry of Defence is making it clear that they will not be part of the new force as such.

Their job is merely to provide the initial security for the force commander until more of his units arrive.

The organic link with the American chain of command is also seen as essential in case things go badly wrong.

This is a lightly armed force. If it gets into trouble or if it needs to be extracted in a hurry, then it will be the Americans who will have to come in and assist with troops and air power.

This scenario is not seen as likely.

All the initial indications suggest that the new force's job will be difficult but not impossible.

Nonetheless military planning inevitably has to consider all eventualities.

See also:

20 Dec 01 | South Asia
UN moves closer to Afghan force
20 Dec 01 | South Asia
Optimism over peacekeeping force
18 Dec 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden's disappearing act
19 Dec 01 | South Asia
Profile: Major General John McColl
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