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German ISAF troops on patrol in AfghanistanImage: AP

NATO's Big Challenge: Afghanistan

Cem Sey (jen)
February 18, 2005

NATO's ISAF mission has a huge job ahead of it. It is supposed to safeguard elections in Afghanistan, and keep peace in the country until 2006. Hikmet Cetin, NATO representative in Kabul, talked about ISAF's timetable.


Hikmet Cetin sits in an old, two-story villa behind massive protective cement pillars. Outside, Italian soldiers guard the ISAF headquarters in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.

As the top civil representative of NATO in Afghanistan, he is one of the most important actors in the Central Asia region today. His job is to create peace and stability in a country that has seen neither for almost a quarter of a century.

To some an impossible task. But to Cetin, a vital one.

"For our own security in the west, our main goal has to be to help Afghanistan," he said in an interview.

The recent elections that confirmed Prime Minister Hamid Karzai as leader of the country have won the war-torn country international praise. New elections, for parliamentary seats and local government positions, are due next summer. Though even politicians in Kabul are doubtful they can happen so soon, Cetin said delays will only slacken their reform vigor.

"It isn't helpful to put off the elections any longer," said Cetin, the former Turkish foreign minister. "We have promised an election to the people of this country."

Militias must be disarmed

For NATO, putting it off until mid-July or August -- when ISAF troops change command -- is out of the question. It would be too difficult to ascertain the security of the elections during such a transitional time, Cetin said.

ISAF Soldaten aus Deutschland in Afghanistan
German soldiers after the ISAF command handover ceremony in KabulImage: AP

In any case, international troops and the Afghan government have difficult issues to deal with up to the time of the election. For example, the disarmament of the militias that even today control large swaths of the country.

"It is important to demobilize them before the parliamentary elections, in order to have free and safe elections," Cetin said. Aside from that, there are problems with the militia sub-commanders.

"If we aren't careful, a kind of illegal militia could form." Some of these sub-commanders could join parliament, according to Cetin, but the rest need other inducements. They need "jobs to make them happy," he said.

Difficulty in eastern Afghanistan

At the same time, the ISAF troops are preparing to take command of further sections of the country. ISAF already controls control the part of Afghanistan that is Kabul, the north, and the west of the country. By the end of 2005, it wants to control the south of the country, and by 2006, everything.

This means that, beginning in 2006, even the disputed eastern part of Afghanistan, with its impenetrable mountains would fall under the responsibility of the ISAF. There, on the border with Pakistan, U.S. troops have been searching in vain for Osama bin Laden and the dispersed Taliban.

The mission won't be easy, Cetin admitted. "Some countries are very hesitant in this part of the country to engage in the fight against terrorism. But I think we can have two different missions under one command," he said. "The already existing coalition troops could continue the fight on terrorism, and catch Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar and other leaders of terror organizations."

German army's key role

The NATO representative said he is glad that the German army is playing an important role in the expansion of the ISAF zone.

"Germany is playing a big part," he said. "Right now it is very important, and supports NATO with ita soldiers. And they are doing a great job here. Germany has to keep that up. We all agreed: if we don't go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan will come to us – in the form of terror.

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