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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Nato under fire for Afghan role

By Andrew North
BBC correspondent in Kabul

Nato troops in Afghanistan
It is still unclear when more troops will be in place
Nato is facing growing criticism in Afghanistan over its leadership of the international peacekeeping operation here - which it has called its number one priority.

Some are describing the alliance as "highly unreliable".

It comes as command of the International Security Assistance Force - or Isaf as it is known - changes hands.

For the next six months, a French and German led-unit called Eurocorps will be in charge of the 30-nation peacekeeping force, taking over from Canadian units.

The criticism centres around the apparent confusion and delay that has surrounded Nato's provision of extra troops it promised to bolster security for the landmark presidential elections due on 9 October.

This is another in a long line of semantic tricks that Nato has played when it talks about increasing troop numbers
John Sifton
Human Rights Watch

At its Istanbul summit in late June, Nato committed to providing an additional 3,500 troops for Isaf before the polls, to take its strength to around 10,000.

That was only after much negotiation among Nato's 26 member states. President Hamid Karzai - who was in Istanbul - had been hoping for many more. Nonetheless, he begged alliance members to "please hurry" in sending the extra forces.

'Over horizon'

Six weeks later - and just two months before polling day - there has still been no announcement of when they are coming. Meanwhile, the security situation has deteriorated, with mounting attacks on election workers registering voters.

And as one Kabul-based security specialist points out: "Bringing in several thousand troops takes time, and they need to build up local knowledge."

In the past few days, more details of the deployment have emerged, with some troops expected to start arriving by late August.

Afghan women registering to vote
Security will be needed for 5,000 polling stations in October
It now seems that 1,500 of the 3,500 troops promised will not even be coming to Afghanistan. They are being called "over the horizon" troops, a phrase used by Nato officials to describe units on stand-by, but not in "theatre".

However, peacekeeping commanders in Kabul admit they do not yet know which country the soldiers will be based in - in effect where the "horizon" is. Neighbouring Uzbekistan is a possibility, but there are reports it could be as far away as Italy.

Nato says it always made clear some troops would be outside the country. But according to John Sifton, Afghan analyst with Human Rights Watch, "this is another in a long line of semantic tricks that Nato has played when it talks about increasing troop numbers".

'In readiness'

It has also emerged that of the 2,000 extra troops who will be in Afghanistan - most from Italy and Spain - the bulk will be kept in Kabul, rather than being spread around the country where the security threat is greater.

What we're seeing here is smoke and mirrors
Andrew Wilder
Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit

Even in the capital, they will not be "patrolling", says Isaf spokesman Squadron Leader Peter Maskell. "They'll be held in readiness, as a show of force if it's needed."

He says there will be "8,500 troops in theatre over the period of the elections".

The current plan is for just one company of Italian soldiers - up to 200 troops - to be based outside Kabul, in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, but also in barracks.

This is "not nearly enough to meet Afghanistan's security needs in the run-up to the elections", argues Andrew Wilder of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit. "What we're seeing here is smoke and mirrors."

In private, you hear similar things from Afghan government officials and Western diplomats. They are reluctant to criticise Nato openly, in some cases because of a concern about raising tensions. But as one senior Western official put it dryly, "the Afghan people probably had an expectation of a much larger presence by Nato".

For the election period, we will now have more troops inside the country than originally planned
Nato spokesman Robert Pszczel
The public line at Isaf headquarters in Kabul and from Nato in Brussels is that the alliance is meeting its commitments.

Acting Nato spokesman Robert Pszczel stressed the alliance "had never taken on responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan", but insisted promises would be met.

"For the election period, we will now have more troops inside the country than originally planned. Initially, it was going to be one quick reaction force. Now there will be two quick reaction forces in theatre."

Mr Pszczel acknowledged, however, that some of the extra troops would be based outside Afghanistan.

But away from the microphones, some peacekeeping officials admit being increasingly frustrated at having to defend decisions made thousands of miles away and over which they have no influence.

And that is where the blame lies, Mr Sifton argues. "The numbers promised at Istanbul were insufficient in the first place."

US criticised

Another concern is the change of command at Isaf to Eurocorps. The Canadians under Lt Gen Rick Hillier are widely seen as having done a good job at leading the peacekeeping force.

"It's unfortunate they're going at this time," said one Afghanistan-based analyst, who asked not to be named.

"I don't know anyone who thinks the Germans and the French are up to the task - especially based on Germany's performance up in Kunduz [in north-east Afghanistan, where German troops run a provincial reconstruction team]. What we'll see is more of the same conservative, risk-averse style they've adopted up there."

Nato's spokesman Robert Pszczel rejects these concerns: "Eurocorps is a well-established military structure and it has proven itself in previous situations, such as leading the K-For stabilisation force in Kosovo in the past."

A complaint you hear increasingly in Afghanistan is that the international community is trying to hold elections on the cheap, with minimal investment in security and other needs.

The biggest concern is polling day itself, when over 5,000 polling stations around the country will have to be protected.

Andrew Wilder says the international community "shouldn't have been pushing an election agenda - which is de-stabilising - if we're not prepared to provide the means to protect it".

"Nato does not deserve all the blame," argues Sifton. "The United States has dropped the ball" on security, he says, because of its focus on hunting remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

The American military answer to this is that it has recently announced a new operation to boost security for the elections. But spokesmen admit the US-led coalition force in Afghanistan will be smaller by the time of the polls.

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