KABUL, Afghanistan – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Monday plans to take command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan’s war-shattered capital, a move that reflects the 54-year-old alliance’s shifting priorities in the global war on terror.
The deployment in Asia will be NATO’s first outside Europe since the organization was formed during the Cold War to provide a bulwark against possible attacks by the former Soviet Union.
NATO will take over command of the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, from Germany and the Netherlands during a ceremony in Kabul.
“This important event … underscores the long-term commitment of all NATO Allies to stability and security for the Afghan people,” the organization said in a statement Friday.
“NATO’s commitment to the ISAF mission is a reflection of our transformation agenda and the alliance’s resolve to address the new security challenges of the 21st century.”
NATO decided several months ago to take over ISAF, in large part to end the task of searching for a new “lead nation” every six months to run the peacekeeping force.
ISAF has been led by Britain and Turkey — and for the last six months jointly by Germany and the Netherlands — since it was created in December 2001 to bolster security in Kabul in the wake of the U.S.-led war that toppled the Taliban.
NATO has repeatedly said that ISAF’s mission will not change. There will also be no cosmetic change in the force, which will look the same and retain the same name.
About 90 percent of ISAF’s troops are from NATO countries, though 15 of the 30 contributing countries are — and will still be — from non-NATO nations, said German peacekeeping spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Lobbering.
The force’s current mandate from the U.N. Security Council expires in June 2004, when nationwide elections are due to be held to choose a new head of state.
That mandate is likely to be extended, and NATO is prepared to lead the force “indefinitely,” Lobbering said.
The outgoing commander, German Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst, will be replaced by NATO Lt. Gen. Gotz Gliemeroth, who is also from Germany. His deputy will be Canadian Maj. Gen. Andrew Leslie.
Canada has been sending troops to Afghanistan since last month and is expected to have 1,900 soldiers in Afghanistan by month’s end. The Canadians are replacing a roughly equivalent number of German troops.
NATO will face the same challenge other lead nations have in the past: ensuring stability in Kabul and preventing possible terrorist strikes. ISAF suffered its worst-ever hostile casualties in June, when a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden taxi killed four German peacekeepers and wounded 29 others.
Despite such threats, the capital is considered a safe island in a sea of insecurity. Much of Afghanistan is ruled by rival warlords whose armed factions frequently turn their guns on each other. A vast area along the southern and eastern border with Pakistan, meanwhile, is home to a low-level guerrilla insurgency being waged by Taliban rebels and their allies.
NATO currently leads other peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and Bosnia.