- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

ISTANBUL Senior officials from the United States, Britain and Turkey began planning yesterday for a spring takeover of U.N. peacekeeping in Afghanistan by Turkish forces.

Turkey's special coordinator on Afghanistan, Aydemir Erman, is expected to raise concerns about the uncertain mandate of the 4,500-member peacekeeping force, which has been confined to the Afghan capital Kabul, with his American and British counterparts James Dobbins and David Reddaway.

Mr. Dobbins is the Bush administration's special envoy on Afghanistan and Mr. Reddaway holds the comparable post for Britain.

Britain is keen to hand over command of the force to Turkey this spring, but the Turkish side has held out over several conditions, including how to fund the operation.

Turkey would be required to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan by four or five times from the current 260 soldiers it has in the country.

"No decision has been made at the moment," Turkish Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu said ahead of the meeting. "Turkey has indicated that it is positive on taking over the command of the force, but there are certain issues that are still under discussion."

Turkey's main concerns involve suggestions that the International Strategic Assistance Force (ISAF), as the peacekeepers are formally known, be expanded to other parts of Afghanistan.

Turkey also wants to see a new U.N. mandate the current one expires in June in place before any expansion to cities outside Kabul is implemented.

British officials have reacted favorably to putting in place a force beyond Kabul. But U.S. officials are skeptical, arguing that the focus should be on training a multiethnic, national Afghan army.

Afghan officials, including interim leader Hamid Karzai, have requested that the international force be expanded to ensure stability in the fractious country.

Mr. Karzai is due next week in Ankara, where he is expected to press the Turks on their command of the force.

Turkey was the first country to reopen its embassy in Kabul when the Taliban government fell, and it began a program this week to help train a new group of 20 Afghan diplomats.

Turkish Airlines was expected to resume flights to Kabul, becoming the first commercial airline into the city since the United Nations imposed sanctions on the ousted Taliban government.

Turkey is requesting a $60 million payment before it commits to a new command, which the cash-strapped nation says it is unable to afford.

Although the ISAF, which includes troops from 17 nations, is mandated by the U.N. Security Council, the force depends entirely on financing from participating nations.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has said he also wants assurances of troop commitments from other NATO-member countries after the British deployment is scaled down.

Details of the force plan may be discussed with Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who is expected to arrive in Ankara on Tuesday at the end of his 10-day trip through the Middle East.

Mr. Cheney is due to hold talks with Mr. Ecevit to present Washington's views on the future course of the war on terrorism, including potential action to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

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