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Saturday, 2 February, 2002, 13:49 GMT
Peacekeepers key to Afghan future
British troops in Afghanistan
Peacekeepers are a regular and welcome sight in Kabul
By the BBC's Mike Donkin in Kabul

Walk down a city centre street in Kabul these days and you can often see one convoy of International Security Force armoured personnel carriers cruising in one direction pass another patrolling the opposite way.

The soldiers' eyes are watchful, their guns at the ready.

As they have consolidated their presence in the capital since the New Year, these peacekeepers have hardly been put to the test.

But the visible security they offer is a huge comfort to citizens here.

German troops enter Kabul
The peacekeepers have a strong hold on Kabul
"They must stay," people tell you. "And we need more, many more for all of Afghanistan."

Outside the capital, however, ISAF's writ does not run.

The warlords are able to carry on their bad old ways unchecked, and for most Afghans security remains a constant worry.

Unchecked violence

The recent bloodshed in Gardez, in the east, was an extreme example of what still happens. It was not an isolated one.

Trouble began when villagers in the region voted to reject the imposition there of a warlord as governor.

British troops in Afghanistan
Two thousand British troops are already in Afghanistan
He had been hand-picked for the province by Hamid Karzai's interim government. When the villagers protested, the warlord's fighters struck back.

They rained mortar shells on the town's streets and bazaar, and two days of battles raged.

Fifty people died before the governor beat a sullen retreat and his men surrendered or were captured.

Throughout the incident, American special forces were on hand, and Gardez is also close enough to Kabul for the ISAF to have intervened.

Diplomatic mission

Both chose to keep well away because neither remnants of the Taliban nor al-Qaeda were involved.

It was judged a "local incident".

While this and the odd lesser local incident was happening, Mr Karzai was winging his way from Washington to London - being feted as the protege who, in the short month since his appointment, had surprised and delighted his sponsors.

His political skills and diplomacy were much praised.

Hamid Karzai'
Hamid Karzai is pushing for more foreign troops
Throughout his travels, Afghanistan's leader did sound a cautionary note. Security was the key to his country's future, he acknowledged, and it was needed now.

In London, Mr Karzai urged UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to meet his peoples' demands and expand the strength and the mandate of the international force.

Mr. Blair made clear that he judged his present pledge of 2,000 troops - by far the biggest in ISAF - to be commitment enough for now.

The other allies contributing to the force are also reluctant to expand it, and anyway this would need the United Nations' sanction. So Mr Karzai's calls for more peacekeepers seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Action needed

But without the confidence a realistic sized ISAF would command, it is hard indeed to see how the much-needed reconstruction blitz can get going except in Kabul.

Even the boldest aid agencies will not be ready to risk building roads, schools or clinics in remote parts of the countryside when their workers might be shot or held hostage.

And, after the decades of destruction, Afghans have taken to heart the prospect of rebuilding their lives at last. The billions of dollars pledged atTokyo have given them not just hopes, but expectations

So, for Mr Karzai the honeymoon looks to be over. He may have the support and the respect of most of his people, but they will want him to show that behind the charm there is a steely determination - that he can take on the tough guys and win.

His newfound influential friends abroad will be nodding their heads in agreement but, if it looks like he is losing, they may yet have to pile into this country in a hurry.

See also:

31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
UK cool on extra Afghan troops
31 Jan 02 | South Asia
Fighting setback for Afghan leaders
23 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Afghans 'almost fired on UK troops'
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