The North Atlantic Treaty Organization
is assuming command of the 5,000-strong international peacekeeping force in change
of security in and around Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. The transfer of leadership
comes amid debate on whether to extend the force's mandate beyond the city and
into the violence-racked Afghan countryside.
NATO took over command Monday of the International Security Assistance Force,
known by its acronym ISAF, following a year-and-a-half in which different nations
rotated into and out of leadership.
The takeover marks NATO's first operation outside Europe in its 54-year history,
and underscores the alliance's shift from its original Cold War role to a new
focus on international terrorism.
NATO's assumption of control of ISAF also marks a significant change of procedure
within Afghanistan. Since its founding in December 2001, ISAF control has shifted
from the British to the Turks and most recently to a joint German-Dutch command.
But NATO said it now plans to stay at the head of ISAF for the foreseeable
future, providing continuity to the force. A sizable majority of soldiers serving
with the peacekeeping mission comes from NATO-member states.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the new ISAF leadership is whether to begin
deploying forces outside of the Kabul area, something which Afghanistan's transitional
government and many in the international community have been pushing for.
While security in the capital is said to be relatively stable, much of the
rest of the country is plagued by banditry, fighting among rival warlords,
and attacks by remnants of the ousted Taleban government.
Southern Afghanistan has seen a particularly serious upsurge of violence
over the past week, with militants staging several major attacks against aid
workers and government soldiers.
One incident in Helmand province cost the lives of six soldiers from the
newly-formed Afghan national army and a driver for a foreign aid organization.
The violence prompted the United Nations to suspend all of its missions and
all travel within the affected parts of southern Afghanistan.
But increasing the geographic influence of ISAF will require a significantly
greater troop commitment. One estimate from within the ISAF command says at
least 10,000 soldiers would be needed to extend the mandate into the provinces,
compared to the force's current strength of 5,000.
Meanwhile, fighting continues in the east of the country, pitting the U.S.
military and its Afghan allies against suspected insurgents from the Taleban
and other militant groups opposed to the transitional government.
American forces said Monday that they had killed one purported Taleban fighter
and arrested three others during recent action.