REGION: NATO pressed to send Afghan troops
* Karzai urges alliance to act quickly to ensure peaceful elections in September
ISTANBUL: Afghanistan’s president appealed to NATO Tuesday to rush extra troops to his country to protect September elections, amid a simmering row over who supplies them notably pitting France against key allies.
Hamid Karzai said the Alliance, which finally agreed Monday to expand its peacekeeping force beyond the capital Kabul, had to act quickly to ensure the elections could take place peacefully amid a wave of violence. “I would like you to please hurry,” he told NATO leaders on the second day of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Istanbul.
NATO leaders pledged Monday to boost the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Istanbul from its current 6,500 troops to 10,000 ahead of the September polls. Specifically they agreed to take command of four more Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the north of the country - where they already run one PRT - and also to begin expanding into the west.
Alliance officials stressed, however, that up to 2,000 of those troops will not necessarily be deployed on the ground, rather being held on standby outside Afghanistan, to be sent in case of crisis.
NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer declined to give more details of when and where the new troops will be deployed. “I’m not yet going to name countries and details ... but you can rest assured that we have the extra troops,” he said.
But during the summit rifts emerged, notably involving France refusing a British and US-backed call for the recently-created NATO Response Force (NRF) to be used for the Afghan operation.
Chirac told reporters that NATO should “not mobilise as some had imagined the NATO rapid reaction force. It’s not made for that.”
Diplomats conceded that the dispute was causing headaches, but insisted that it could be resolved, possibly by using Italian troops from the NRF. “I think we can get the forces another way if we have to,” said one.
Germany which already supplies around 2,000 troops to ISAF, said it could not be expected to send any more. “Germany is leading the way, it can’t be anymore ahead than being in front,” Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said.
It was unclear how many other countries opposed using the NRF, but one diplomat said it was “not limited to Old Europe” - referring to countries like France, Germany and Belgium which spearheaded opposition to the Iraq war.
Karzai said the troops were needed urgently before the September polls.
“The Afghan people need that security today, not tomorrow ... come sooner than September and provide the Afghan men and women with the chance to vote freely without fear, without coercion.”
Voter registration began in December 2003 to prepare for the country’s first presidential and parliamentary elections, two and a half years after the Taliban regime was ousted by US forces in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
But the polls have already been delayed once - they were initially scheduled for June - and have been threatened by remnants of the Taliban regime and insurgents targetting notably election officials in recent weeks. afp