- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

Britain has no objection to expanding the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, but enormous practical hurdles remain before such a force can be approved, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday.
Meeting with a small group of reporters at the end of a brief Washington visit, Mr. Straw said the future of the U.N.-authorized force, currently headed by Britain, was a major topic of discussion in his private meetings with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai pressed in meetings this week in Washington, London and the United Nations for a broader mandate for the force, which is limited to the region around the capital of Kabul.
With reports of fresh fighting between rival warlords in eastern Afghanistan that killed an estimated 61 persons the past two days, Mr. Karzai has pressed for a bigger international security force that could deploy to Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and other major Afghan cities.
"It's a demand of the Afghan people as a measure of commitment by the international community, as a symbol of their commitment to Afghanistan to stay on," Mr. Karzai said after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on Thursday.
Mr. Straw said, "In no sense should we restrict [the international force] to Kabul, if the conditions are right."
"I don't discern any issues of principle involved here, but there are practical problems to consider," he added.
The U.N. Security Council mandate would have to be modified to expand the 5,000-troop force and authorize deployment to other areas. Other issues include which countries would supply the troops, how they would be housed and supplied, and under what rules of engagement they would operate.
Britain will soon relinquish military control of the international force, with Turkey considered the leading candidate to assume command.
The United States provides logistical and transportation support, but no troops, to the international force. Mr. Straw said he expects the U.S. role to remain the same even if an expanded mandate is approved.
The foreign minister said the uproar in Britain over the U.S. treatment of captives from the Afghan campaign at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has largely subsided. Three British nationals are among the more than 150 detainess currently at the site.
Based on visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross and by an official British government delegation, "a lot of those who had concerns on the subject are now reassured," Mr. Straw said.
He sidestepped questions about President Bush's pointed State of the Union address Tuesday night, in particular Mr. Bush's warning that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constituted an "Axis of evil" that must be dealt with.
Britain has opened an embassy in North Korea, and Mr. Straw himself made a path-breaking visit to Tehran in September.
He said he agreed with Mr. Powell's assessment that the Iranian regime had been very helpful in several respects since the September 11 attacks but that anti-Western conservative elements in the regime and Iran's backing of Middle East terrorist groups and an active weapons program remained major concerns.
Asked whether the president's characterization of the three regimes as evil should affect policy decisions or efforts to engage the three countries, Mr. Straw replied, "I don't think it should make any difference. Why should it?"
Administration officials have said the president's blunt words were meant in part for U.S. allies and powers such as China and Russia, both of which have had extensive contacts with all three regimes. But Mr. Straw said he was not pressed during his visit to scale back Britain's contacts with either Pyongyang or Tehran.


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