- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 16 (UPI) — NATO agreed Wednesday to take control of the 4,500-strong international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan for an indefinite period starting this summer.

The decision, taken unanimously by alliance ambassadors in Brussels, will lead to the 19-member bloc's first military foray outside Europe and underscores its ambition to become a major player on the international security scene.

NATO officials insisted that the name, mission and insignia of the International Security Assistance Force would remain the same, but said the move was necessary to bring greater stability to the Kabul-based coalition.

"The enhanced NATO role will overcome the growing problem of a continual search every six months to find new nations to lead the mission," said NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur. "This not only puts a considerable strain on the lead nations, but means every six months a new headquarters has to get to grips with a complex situation."

ISAF, which is currently run by Germany, Canada and the Netherlands, was set up in 2001 to bring peace to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime. Britain and then Turkey were the two previous ISAF leaders. The United States has never led the ISAF forces, choosing instead to concentrate on Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes training the Afghan army as well as continuing operations against Taliban and al-Qaida guerillas.

At present, 95 percent of ISAF troops come from NATO states. The United States was originally against the military alliance's direct involvement in Afghanistan, but U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell brought up the topic late last month at a NATO summit in Brussels. Powell also proposed a NATO role in post-war Iraq.

The alliance's deputy spokesman Mark Laity commented about the Afghanistan decision to United Press International: "Using NATO means you can harness the efforts of 19 members rather putting all the pressure on one."

The alliance plans to appoint a Kabul-based force commander from one of the 29 states that currently supply troops to ISAF. However, strategic command, control and coordination of the force will be exercised by officials at NATO's European headquarters in Mons, Belgium.

The decision to take over the international peacekeeping force comes on the same day NATO ambassadors opted to phase out the alliance's military operations in southeast Turkey.

Last month, after the most damaging split in NATO's 53-year history, the Brussels-based body decided to send surface-to-air missiles and reconnaissance aircraft to protect Turkey in the event of an attack by Iraq. Belgium, Germany and France had blocked a U.S.-backed proposal to send materiel to Turkey, but compromised after a month-long stand-off.

On Wednesday, Turkey's ambassador to NATO Ahmet Uzumcu thanked alliance chief George Robertson for the help provided by the world's most powerful military bloc.

"We are convinced that, through such an active and collective display of deterrence, NATO has not only extended a much-appreciated helping hand to one of its members in her hour of need, but also proven, once again, its credibility and relevance as the cornerstone of collective security in the Euro-Atlantic area."

In addition to taking over peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan, NATO foreign ministers earlier this month said they would consider a U.S.-backed request to send a stabilization force to Iraq.

(UPI Chief European Correspondent Gareth Harding reported from the EU summit in Athens, Greece.)

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