Ankara is ready to take a decision on whether to take over Afghanistan's International Security Force (ISAF) from Great Britain, government officials told IRIN on Friday. The only Muslim country to take part in the 4,800 strong force, Turkey has already deployed 261 soldiers to the multinational peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
"I'm extremely cautious when and how this decision will be made," government spokesman, Huseyin Dirioz told IRIN from the Turkish capital Ankara. "Things are being clarified now, but we hope for a political decision soon," he maintained. He noted, however, work was still needed in establishing the composition of these forces, logistics, the clarity of the mandate and whether it would be extended beyond the Afghan capital Kabul.
Under the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386, unanimously adopted on 20 December 2001, the UN sanctioned six-month mandate for the force was initially set to expire on 15 June. Some 18 countries are contributing to ISAF including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Spain, and Turkey. The force is authorised to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and surrounding areas.
While the mission is currently limited to the capital and its environs, Interim Authority leader, Hamid Karzai has indicated that many Afghans were eager to see international peacekeepers throughout the Central Asian country. Aid agencies and NGOs have indicated that national security is necessary before any real reconstruction work can take place. However, neither Britain nor the US favour expanding the mandate beyond Kabul. An additional amendment to the UN resolution would be needed to expand ISAF's operations beyond the capital.
Indeed, it's precisely such speculation that has brought doubt as to whether the Turks would take the lead. "To take the lead requires a more comprehensive effort. Therefore we have to look at all these factors," Dirioz explained.
Another source of concern was whether sufficient financial resources would be provided to Turkey to fund the cost of commanding the force. Ankara has expressed itself willing to lead the force, but raised concerns over its cost. While Dirioz declined to discuss financial details, Turkish media reported between US $150 to US $200 million was being requested by Ankara from the international community.
According to a Turkish television NTV report on 22 March, following US Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Ankara, the Bush administration would present legislation to Congress to release US $228 million to help meet the expenses of Turkey taking up the ISAF command.
Speaking on America's NBC TV, Cheney expressed his hope that Turkey would accept the ISAF role. "This is a very important task and we hope the Turks would undertake it," he said.
But ISAF press officer, Flight Lieutenant Tony Marshall in Kabul was even more optimistic. "I believe we are going to see an affirmative answer quite soon," he told IRIN on Friday. "The Turkish contingent here are quite positive about taking up the role," he maintained, adding political issues were now being ironed out.
Asked to explain the delay from Ankara, Marshall said Karzai was expected to travel to Ankara this week, but delayed the trip due to this week's devastating earthquake in northern Baghlan province. Karzai was due to arrive in Turkey for talks with senior government officials on Wednesday, including Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. "Once he is in Turkey, I expect some announcement will be made," he said.
If and when Turkey assumes the ISAF command in the coming months, its contingent will be increased to be between 800 and 1,000 personnel, including an infantry battalion.