Suspicions of Iranian Meddling Becloud Bid for Afghan Peacekeepers
Despite a hero's reception at US President George W. Bush's State of the Union address, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai finished his most recent trip to the United States without key assurances on international peacekeeping in his tattered nation. Capping three days of diplomacy and lobbying in New York and Washington, Karzai called on the United Nations Security Council to extend and expand the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in his country.
"The extension of the presence of the multinational forces in Kabul and expanding their presence in other cities will signal the ongoing commitment of the international community to peace and security in Afghanistan," Karzai told the Council on January 30. He added that his administration intends to establish a national police force and army, but that it will take time. Currently, the ISAF operates in and around Kabul.
Anil Kumarsingh Gayan, the foreign minister of Mauritius, this month's head of the UN Security Council, provided general support for the Bonn agreement that established the Interim Authority but did not directly address Karzai's request. In a similar maneuver, Bush cast doubt on January 29 about a meaningful American peacekeeping force while promising to help shore up the war-ravaged nation.
Karzai may be focused simply on getting some breathing room. The current UN mandate authorizing the ISAF expires in June. The United Nations itself is trying to convince member states to support a greater role for the ISAF in order to carry out its humanitarian work, despite interstate mistrust. "All Afghans continue to point to the issue of security as their principle concern, ahead of reconstruction and even food requirements," Carolyn McAskie, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the Security Council following a recent meeting of donors in Tokyo. "The United Nations is convinced that the Afghan people would very much welcome an extension of ISAF to other areas. [UN Special Representative Lakhdar] Brahimi and his colleagues in Afghanistan have informed the Secretariat that there is a universal wish amongst Afghans for the ISAF to be deployed in other regions."
McAskie cited the road to Kandahar as one example of a place where warlords posing as local government officials are indiscriminately halting convoys and demanding payment, something she said often occurred before the Taliban came to power. As fresh reports of Pashtun infighting in eastern Afghanistan surfaced on the 30th, the idea of expanding the force into other regions dominated Karzai's appeal.
British and French diplomats have replied, however, that expansion of the international force could be a shortsighted and messy idea. UN officials acknowledge that expanding ISAF patrols beyond Kabul is also seen as logistically untenable at this point. British and French diplomats have said the best solution is to aid demobilization efforts and help create a regular army and police force.
Karzai had broached that issue with Bush the day before his Security Council appearance, with more headway. Bush committed the US to a role in training and providing logistics to both the ISAF and the eventual Afghan army. He also proposed offering the ISAF "a kind of bailout in case the troops get in trouble." But he stopped short of endorsing an expansion of it.
Misgivings about Iran and Pakistan may be stalling the expansion. In a January 24 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah also called for more international peacekeepers in "major cities in northern Afghanistan and eastern Afghanistan." He said he could not confirm the reports of Iranian influence in the western part of the country, but warned both Pakistan and Iran against interfering in his country's affairs.
Six days later at the UN, Gayan spelled out conditions under which an international force might grow. He warned that "the reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation process should not be derailed by any outside pressure or intervention," which seemed to be a veiled reference to reports that neighboring countries Pakistan and Iran are still trying to exert influence within Afghanistan.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is on record as calling reports that Iran was sending weapons to Afghanistan "totally baseless." At a January 27 press conference in Tehran with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at his side, Kharrazi told reporters that Iran had aided the Northern Alliance when it was fighting to depose the Taliban. "But now that the Interim Authority is in place in Kabul," he said, "certainly it is the duty of everyone to support the Interim Authority."
In Tokyo Iran pledged $560 million over three years for the Afghan reconstruction effort, and UN Development Program Administrator Mark Malloch Brown said his meetings with Kharrazi have given him "tremendous confidence" in Iran's efforts to contribute to Afghanistan's recovery. "The Iranian interest in having this government succeed is every bit as great as that of the other donors and I think they're demonstrating that in their early actions," he said.
The next step for the donors is a meeting with the Afghan Interim Administration in Kabul on February 12 to determine in greater detail how the money pledged will be spent. Karzai may have to do more creative lobbying to quell fears about regional meddling and advance the case for a broad, credible peacekeeping force.
Todd Diamond is a journalist who covers the United Nations.
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