In Afghanistan, 'friendly ire'

A confrontation last week reveals tensions between Western peacekeepers and antiterror troops.

It was 6:45 p.m. and Dutch peacekeepers were on high alert. Someone had just launched a rocket at their compound, and the peacekeepers were still looking for the culprit.

So when a Toyota Landcruiser drove up - full of heavily armed men, wearing civilian clothes and bushy beards - the Dutch surrounded the vehicle, weapons drawn, and asked the strangers to identify themselves.

As it turned out, the occupants were American soldiers, who said that they had lost their place on the map and then hastily withdrew. The Dutch lowered their weapons - but their irritation remains.

The incident last week shows how close US forces and their allies in Afghanistan come to fighting one another, instead of their enemies. It also points to a lack of coordination between two forces with very different mandates - one keeping the peace, the other catching terrorists.

American soldiers are specifically forbidden, by the Bonn international agreement of December 2001, from running military operations inside the city limits of Kabul. Under Bonn, Kabul is presumed to be under the control of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

"There is a real danger of a shootout between ISAF and US forces because of a lack of coordination," says one Kabul-based European diplomat, speaking privately.

A peacekeeper, also speaking on condition of anonymity, agrees. "In the worst case scenario, you could have blue-on-blue fighting," he says, using military jargon to indicate fighting between two friendly forces. "The Americans never call us to let us know when they are coming to town for an operation," the peacekeeper says, adding, "Our mandates are very different. We are here to maintain security in Kabul. Their mandate is to kill or capture Al Qaeda. These don't always work well together."

It is in this tense environment that the new German and Dutch military commanders have taken over management of ISAF this month. Kabul is still heavily militarized, with the streets full of thousands of former Afghan soldiers who should have been disarmed months ago by ISAF. Kabul is also an increasing target of terrorist attacks, and intelligence reports warn of a possible spree of suicide bombings and assassinations by Islamists trained by Al Qaeda and its allies.

Bridging the gap between the peacekeepers and the US troops could end up being the Germans' most crucial contribution to stability in Afghanistan. "There are lot of US guys in my area of responsibility, and they can be there, and that has to be coordinated very closely from my point of view," says Gen. Norbert Van Heyst, German commander of ISAF.

Relations between US forces and ISAF started out fairly strong, in part because US forces kept a low profile in Kabul. Through March 2002, most US troops were deployed in high-profile operations in eastern and southern Afghanistan, routing out Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts along the Afghan- Pakistani border.

But as the conflict became less intense, and as troubles began to brew in Kabul itself with a series of political assassinations of top Afghan ministers, the presence of US troops became more high-profile. With two different forces vying for position, tensions reached a peak in the early fall. US commanders finally banned their troops from parts of Kabul, including the touristy carpet and antiques markets on Kabul's famed Chicken Street.

"We used to see US soldiers walking up and down Chicken Street like they were on patrol, fingers on the trigger, and these guys are not even supposed to be in Kabul," says one former New Zealand peacekeeper, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "They're a bunch of cowboys. I think they are over-trained for the job they've been given, and that training makes them arrogant."

"The problem is that this makes our job more difficult," the peacekeeper continues. "ISAF peacekeepers try to get to know people and win their trust, and then maybe we can start to get some cooperation and information. But when an Afghan sees US forces riding around with guns drawn, that reflects on all of us, and the trust is gone."

For their part, US military commanders give high marks to their relationship with ISAF and with the local Afghan community. Col. Benny Nelson, a US Army officer who serves as the chief liaison between US forces and ISAF, says that every movement of US troops in Kabul is communicated with ISAF.

"US forces and ISAF have an outstanding relationship," says Colonel Nelson. "Even if ISAF asks for assistance from American forces to come on down and provide reconnaissance, it's totally coordinated with ISAF."

Yet the same policies of coordination may or may not apply to the special operations units of the Central Intelligence Agency, Nelson acknowledges. "That's a totally separate agency and a separate command," he says.

The CIA, which has a policy of not talking to reporters about ongoing operations, declined to comment by phone. "If you were to come to Washington, I would be happy to talk with you about policies," said Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman in Langley, Va., "but all I can say now is no comment."

A British peacekeeper says that one problem is a divergence in experience. "Our forces have had 30 years of experience in peacekeeping missions, so we know what to expect and what level of aggressiveness is appropriate," he says, "whereas America is new to this sort of thing, so they are on a higher level of alert."

One French peacekeeper says that the tensions between US forces and ISAF could be worsened by the bickering between the US and Germany and France over a war in Iraq. "It's a strange situation; we are on opposites sides on Iraq, but our lives depend on each other here in Kabul," he says. Perhaps the Iraq debate will be resolved soon, he offers, but for now, his men worry that their next fight could be with American forces, rather than Al Qaeda. "Coordination?" he smiles bitterly. "There's no coordination."

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