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NATO takes over Afghan peacekeeping force
( 2003-08-12 09:44) (Agencies)

Stepping beyond the bounds of Europe for the first time in its 54-year history, NATO took command Monday of the 5,000-strong peacekeeping force in Afghanistan  the clearest sign yet that the world's most powerful military alliance is adopting new strategies in the global war on terror.

Supreme Allied Commander, Europe Gen. James Jones (C) hands over the ISAF flag he received from Commander of ISAF-III Lt. Gen. Norbert Van Heyst of Germany, right, to Lt. Gen. Gotz F.E. Gliemeroth during a handover ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan Aug. 11, 2003. NATO took command of the 5,000-strong international peacekeeping force in the Afghan capital on Monday, a historic move that marks the alliance's first operation outside Europe since it was created 54 years ago. [AP]
The handover ceremony took place at a heavily guarded high school auditorium in the Afghan capital, Kabul. NATO Deputy Secretary General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo called the new mission "a reflection of NATO's ongoing transformation and resolve to meet the security challenges of the 21st century."

NATO will lead the multinational force "as long as necessary," Rizzo said.

Germany and the Netherlands have jointly led the International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, since Feb. 10. At Monday's ceremony, outgoing commander, German Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst, passed a green ISAF flag to his successor, German Lt. Gen. Gotz Gliemeroth from NATO. Gliemeroth's deputy will be Canadian Maj. Gen. Andrew Leslie.

The 30-nation peacekeeping force was established in December 2001 in the wake of the U.S.-led war that toppled the Taliban, which had granted haven to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

NATO is taking over in large part to end the arduous task of searching for a new "lead nation" every six months to run it. The switch will also allow mission commanders to increase institutional memory. In the past, most commanders rotated out of the country after six months.

In addition to the multinational force, about 11,500 coalition troops, including 8,500 Americans, are deployed in Afghanistan to hunt down the insurgents, a mix of remnants of the former Taliban government, al-Qaida fighters and supporters of rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"ISAF's name and mission will not change. NATO will operate under the ISAF banner and under an unchanged ISAF mandate" in Kabul, Gliemeroth said after taking up his new post.

Streets around Kabul's Amani High School were blocked off with coils of barbed wire, hundreds of armed peacekeepers and dozens of armored cars mounted with machine guns. Bomb-sniffing dogs were on hand to search for any explosives.

President Hamid Karzai, German Defense Minister Peter Struck, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Gen. James L. Jones and a host of diplomats and U.N. officials were present.

Struck said the handover showed the world's commitment to rebuilding the war-shattered nation.

"Afghanistan must not lapse back into anarchy and chaos and must not again become the home of global terror, as was the case under the rule of the Taliban," Struck said. "The support of NATO for ISAF ... is a visible expression of the fact that the people of Afghanistan will not be let down."

Jones said Monday's handover marked an evolution from the Cold War era when NATO's primary goal was to prevent the former Soviet Union from invading Western Europe.

"It's certainly a point in time where we're making a clear statement of transition, which is from the 20th century, defensive, bipolar world to the multipolar, flexible need for rapid response across a myriad of threats that face us," Jones said.

NATO spokesman Mark Laity said NATO would remain a "defensive alliance."

"What we saw on Sept. 11 was that the most powerful member of the alliance was attacked by a threat which emanated from Afghanistan. So the traditional concept of defense needed to be revised," Laity said. "NATO had to be prepared to go to where the problem was, rather than wait for the problem to come to them."

Karzai's government, along with U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi and human rights groups, has repeatedly called for ISAF's mandate to be expanded outside the capital.

But no nation has been willing to shoulder that burden, which would require at least 10,000 additional troops. Laity said it was "premature" to discuss expansion, but said NATO was likely to debate the issue in a few months, after it gets settled in Kabul.

In the meantime, NATO-led peacekeepers will face the same task as their predecessors: ensuring stability in the capital and preventing possible terrorist strikes. In June, ISAF suffered its worst-ever hostile casualties when a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden taxi killed four German peacekeepers and wounded 29 others.

Largely because of the peacekeeping force, security in Kabul is relatively good. The rest of Afghanistan is ruled by warlords and beset by factional fighting. A vast area along the southern and eastern border with Pakistan is home to a low-level guerrilla insurgency being waged by Taliban rebels and their allies.

Struck acknowledged the challenges, saying, "there's still a lot to be done."

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