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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

26 November 2002

If the international community left Afghanistan too early -- before there was a strong national army, before all opposition forces were demobilized, and before a strong police force was operational throughout the country -- Afghanistan could relapse into conflict, the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) warned today at a Headquarters press conference.

Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu briefed correspondents on developments in the five months since Turkey began leading the Force. It was authorized by the Security Council on 23 May, under resolution 1413 (2002). Its mandate is due to expire on 20 December, pending possible further action by the Council authorizing its extension. Presently, ISAF is composed of 4,800 troops from 22 countries.

He said that ISAF had helped the Afghan Government maintain security and stability in and around Kabul. At the same time, the Force had been helping to rehabilitate the capital’s infrastructure. So far, 159 civil/military coordination projects had been completed; 45 more were under construction and 78 were being planned by his staff. The Force had fairly treated all ethnic groups in Kabul and had avoided involvement in Afghan domestic politics. Further, it had fully respected Afghan customs, cultural values and religious beliefs.

The main threat to Kabul came from the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, said the Force Commander, as well as from groups opposing the existence of the Afghan Transitional Government. Terrorist activities drew on improvised explosive devices, rocket attacks, explosive ordnance and surface-to-air missiles. Mines, explosive materiel and rockets were readily available for sale throughout the country. Meanwhile, ISAF had been running the Kabul Airport for the purposes of security and air traffic. It had also been establishing relations with government authorities and United Nations representatives.

He said that the Force had also been training the bodyguards assigned to government ministers and ministries, and helping local security forces to establish a sound security system in Kabul. The ISAF had succeeded in lifting the night-time curfews as of 3 November, for the first time in 23 years. It had also been helping to establish the national army. Forces from the United States, France and the United Kingdom had so far trained several infantry battalions, and Turkey was providing advance training to the battalion assigned to the security of the Presidential palace.

Efforts were also under way by Germany, which was the lead nation for establishing and training the national police. Turkey was presently consulting with Germany on assisting with the formation of the national police, he noted. The ISAF had also been helping with the return of refugees. In terms of the security situation in Kabul, the city was generally calm: thousands of people were on the streets, working in a peaceful atmosphere, despite some rocket attacks by terrorist groups aimed at reversing the success of the new Government.

Asked about resistance to expanding the Force, the Commander said that issue was raised in the Security Council debate in July, but no country was eager to provide either forces or funding for its expansion. It was impossible to use

present ISAF forces in other provinces, owing to the lack of infantry personnel. Of his 4,800 troops, only 850 were to be used in the field or on the streets. So, he had not seen any sign that the international community would approve an expansion in the near future.

He added, "we should leave this issue to the Afghans by accelerating the establishment and training of national army and national police; after that, the Government may use them in the other conflict areas around the country".

Turkey expected to conclude its leadership of ISAF by 20 December, as expressed in a letter dated 7 May from his Foreign Affairs Minister to the Secretary-General, he replied to another question, adding that Turkey had been waiting for the German/Dutch leadership to take over. Any later transfer of leadership would confront severe weather conditions, thereby causing problems for the troops.

To another security-related question, he said he supported the United States-led plan to try to fill the security vacuum in the countryside by possibly expanding its military civil affairs units and giving the newly trained Afghan army troops some field training in the countryside early next year. Overall, the strategic goal for Afghanistan had been achieved, namely removing the Taliban from power. Now, the work centred on improving the country's infrastructure. So he endorsed a plan to achieve security in the other provinces.

The Taliban had lost thousands of troops, he said, in response to a future question, but if the international community left Afghanistan alone again, a resurgence of conflict by the Taliban or other opposing factions could not be discounted. The international community must continue and accelerate its political, economic and technical help through the central Government of Afghanistan. Reconstruction, the re-establishment of governmental institutions and demobilization were critical to Afghanistan's success, and that required the continued support of the international community.

Asked about how many Al Qaeda camps were operational in Afghanistan, he said he had not seen any "mass" Al Qaeda camps or troops. They had been living as small terrorist groups, composed of five to 10 terrorists, in different parts of the country, especially in the southeast, near the border with Pakistan. He could not say that there were a huge number of Al Qaeda camps, but there were small Al Qaeda groups, either living in caves in the mountainous areas, or in some villages, as ordinary citizens. There had been some rocket attacks and shooting, but there were no organized attacks, either by the Taliban or Al Qaeda forces.

To a question about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden and whether he was in Afghanistan, he said no one knew: in or out, no one knew.

Given that the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership was still "intact”, did he consider that the American military campaign had been a success, another correspondent asked. He said that, yes, those groups were out of power and could not control any city in Afghanistan. But the fight against terrorism was a long-term undertaking. It was not possible to keep terrorists under control within only a couple of years. Afghanistan had thousands of mountains and caves.

Moreover, he said, the people were poor and perhaps more inclined to become involved in such activities for payment. For the time being, he felt that success had been achieved. The longer-term goal of eliminating all Taliban and Al Qaeda forces would take some time and the commitment of the international community. Afghanistan was not a battlefield, not a normal war, and the enemy often was invisible.

He wished the next leadership success. It was important that the Afghan people and the international community never again witness a repeat of the attacks of 11 September, anywhere in the world.

Asked how the training of the army and police could be speeded up, he said that two countries had taken the initiative to train the forces -- the United States and France. Additional countries eager to provide more troops would make it much easier to accelerate that process.

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