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Turkey Assumes Command of Force in Afghanistan

Turkey assumes command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan on Thursday. After accepting the mandate six months ago, Turkish leaders now worry they won't have enough money to carry it out.

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Peacekeeping troops are still needed to maintain security in Kabul

For the past six months, the 5,000-strong ISAF force, which is drawn from 18 countries, has been commanded by the British. Now, that mission has come to an end and Turkish General Akin Zorlu is set to replace British General John McColl as commander of the ISAF.

The expansion of Turkey's role in Afghanistan has been partially funded by major financial aid from the United States and Britain.

The fact that the British government announced earlier this week that up to 900 of the 1,300 soldiers it deployed earlier this year to Kabul will be pulled out also poses a challenge for the Turkish command. Until now, there have only been about 300 Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, but the country says it will expand its presence in the security force to 1,500.

In other areas, however, it has great advantages over other ISAF participants that could help the force in its mission to restore peace in civil war-torn Afghanistan. The Turks have held tighter contemporary ties with Afghanistan than most other NATO members. For the past eight decades the countries have worked together on joint military endeavors.

But there won't be many non-Turkish Muslims in the security force when Turkey takes command in Kabul Thursday. After long negotiations, the Ankara government pushed for a security force structure that is comprised overwhelmingly of soldiers from NATO member countries. The Turkish government is based on a strictly secular constitution, and both Turks and other NATO members feared that radical-Islamic elements could infiltrate the security force if its membership were too broad.

Some Turks say U.S. aid isn't enough

After weeks of intense negotiations with Afghan, American, British officials, Turkey’s government finally accepted command of the international peacekeeping force in Kabul in April.

British and US mediators are reported to have flown to Ankara to help solve Turkey’s financial concerns.

The United States promised Turkey some $228 million in aid -- $28 million of which will go directly to supporting Turkey’s commanding ISAF role. But Turkish officials are said to be dissatisfied with American promises of aid, calling them inadequate.

A Turkish general with field experience

Despite the challenges and risks that the command of the ISAF mission poses, General Zorlu -- who is overseeing the handover in Kabul -- appeared confident that Turkey could pull off the operation on account of the broad experience Turkish army officers have had abroad and the training troops have been given.

Indeed, Turkey has been considered one of the most reliable NATO partners by member states since its entry into the alliance in 1952. Turkey's military proved its effectiveness during the 1950s when it sent more than 6,000 soldiers to the Korean War. More recently, Turkish troops participated in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Nor is this the first time Turkey has commanded an international security operation: In the late 90s, a Turkish general led the peacekeeping effort in Somalia.

"Everything is going well", Zorlu told Reuters Television in an interview in Kabul this week. "I believe we’re going to put into place in the best possible way the operation to protect this most difficult peace".

Zorlu brings with him considerable experience. Between 1997-99, he commanded a tank brigade in Turkey's battle against the separatist Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). And during his UN tour of the Balkans, he led the Southeastern European Brigade with soldiers from Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy Macedonia, Rumania and Turkey.

The lessons learned by Zorlu in some of the worst humanitarian crises in the past decade could prove invaluable as ISAF seeks to maintain order and safety in Afghanistan following a tense meeting of the Loya Jirga and a string of politically motivated assasinations.

The 5,000-strong ISAF began deploying in and around the Afghan capital Kabul just days before an interim administration was sworn into office on December 22 last year, following the end of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

ISAF’s original mandate was due to end on June 20, 2002, but the UN Security Council extended the mission for six months.

Germany had also been asked to take over command of the ISAF force, but the responsibility fell to Turkey after the German government said it did not have the military capacity to continue leading peacekeeping missions in the Balkans while taking over the operation in Afghanistan.

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