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Debate Over Potential Afghan Peacekeeping Force - 2001-11-17

Several countries have now expressed willingness to contribute soldiers to an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. The composition of the proposed force, which would be responsible for maintaining order in the war torn country, will be especially sensitive in Afghanistan.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is quoted as saying a peacekeeping force in Afghanistan would have to maintain security at airports and carry out police duties. Mr. Straw told a London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat such an international force may have to stay in Afghanistan a long time to help set up a civil administration.

Similar peacekeeping missions have been carried out in Bosnia, Cambodia, Namibia, Rwanda and Haiti.

In Afghanistan, a multinational peacekeeping force will be essential, according to Shireen Hunter, the director of the Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think that, given the troubled history of Afghanistan in the last 20 years or so and the atrocities that unfortunately a fair number of Afghans of different groups have committed against one another, the temptation for revenge and so on is quite strong. And that would be the last thing we want to happen," she says. "So therefore, an international force which can create some measure of calm and stability and can act as some sort of hindrance and barrier to this type of revenge which can create a cycle of violence is absolutely necessary."

Ms. Hunter says the hard job will be deciding who should take part in the international force. "I personally believe that countries that have a very clear and obvious interest in the region but that so far have not been involved in it should really not be included in this," she says. "The reason I'm saying that is because this would create suspicions and anxieties, and some of it rather, I think, justified anxieties among the neighboring countries."

Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Britain, France and New Zealand have offered to send troops. Observers say it is important to include Muslim soldiers, but Ms. Hunter says the participating countries should not have strong strategic interests in Afghanistan or its neighbors.

For example, she says Turkish troops would likely be sympathetic to the Uzbek elements in Afghanistan, and that could make ethnic Tajiks nervous. She also says many Afghans may feel uncomfortable with Arab soldiers from Jordan, even though Jordan is not connected to Osama Bin Laden, whose al Qaida organization had many Arab fighters who supported the Taleban.

She says Muslim countries far away from Afghanistan, like Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, could send troops.

But Indonesia specialist Bill Liddle from Ohio State University says there are questions about the competence and reputation of Indonesia's army. "I think it became very clear with the Timor business, the role of the Indonesian military in East Timor, that there is both a lot of brutality [by] the Indonesian military, that the Indonesian military deliberately exercises against the populations that it deals with, and it's also the case that there's a lot of incompetence or maybe inability of top officers to control their troops," he says.

Therefore, Mr. Liddle says he hopes that if Indonesia takes part, only highly trained troops would be sent to any peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

Ms. Hunter says other Muslim countries, in Africa for example, do not have what she calls "baggage," but do have experience in performing peacekeeping functions. "I would like to see a peacekeeping group that has a good number of European countries, but preferably countries like Austria, Sweden, I don't know, Denmark or Finland, and then maybe some East European countries, and also Muslim countries from regions that are relatively far away and don't have any really strong strategic or other interests in Afghanistan," she says.

Proposals to create a peacekeeping force for Afghanistan are currently being discussed at the United Nations with added urgency since the collapse of the Taleban regime. However, with the political situation in Afghanistan far from clear, discussions of a U.N. peacekeeping force are still in the informal stages.