WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- European officials believe the international peacekeeping force now deployed in Afghanistan will be there past the end of 2003, and the U.S. presence possibly even longer.
"We would be misleading our publics if we said our peacekeeping force was going to be out of Kabul by the end of 2003," a senior European official in Washington said Thursday. At the same time, he said, the United States "is preparing itself for a massive longer-term effort in Afghanistan, with a lot more ground troops."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a similar point Wednesday in a statement to the House of Commons when he announced that Britain was sending 1,700 troops to join U.S. forces in the hunt for fugitive al Qaida militants. "There will be British forces engaged in Afghanistan for a very long time," Blair said.
The peacekeeping force -- the International Security and Assistance Force -- was formed in December with a six-month mandate from the U.N. Security Council to provide security in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and to help form and train an Afghan army and police force. Britain, France, Germany and Turkey are among the countries that have contributed troops to ISAF.
The European official said his government's view was that the United Nations "will have no choice but to extend ISAF's mandate" before its June 30 deadline. For one thing, he pointed out, "building up an Afghan army is not a simple thing."
A further argument for a longer ISAF mandate -- added a European diplomat also living in Washington -- would be that the six-month term of the interim government of Hamid Karzai would likely be prolonged, and protecting Karzai's administration was one of the main reasons why the international force was created in the first place.
The United States is not represented in ISAF. Its troops are engaged in what Washington considers the closing phase of the U.S.-led Afghan offensive, Operation Enduring Freedom. This involves hunting down Taliban fighters and members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaida organization still holding out in mountainous areas.
The United States has about 5,000 troops inside Afghanistan, and a total force of 60,000 involved in the Afghan offensive, mostly on ships. ISAF is about 5,000-strong.
Washington has not announced any time table for withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the senior European official quoted earlier said that the final defeat of al Qaida and the Taliban, when it comes, would not mean the end of the U.S. military presence.
The Bush administration was also committed to helping shape an Afghan army -- "that means advisers, who will need protection and support, so the U.S. presence will turn into something very different from an offensively focused operation," he said.
European commentators have said that there would then effectively be two parallel but separate peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan -- ISAF in Kabul, and a U.S. peacekeeping force in the rest of the country. The Bush administration, however, has insisted that it has no plans to take on a full peacekeeping role, but will step in to support ISAF with a rapid reaction force and communications in an emergency.
European governments would feel more secure if the United States were directly part of ISAF, but -- the European official said -- "The Pentagon hates the idea of being involved in anything that gets decided in New York." He was referring to the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan.
Having U.S. military muscle at hand in Afghanistan was the next best thing for the peacekeepers. The worst scenario, the official implied, was a U.S. pullout, leaving the peacekeepers without the benefit of U.S. protection. But there is no indication of the United States quitting Afghanistan any time soon.