A proposal that ‘should be discarded’

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A British proposal for deploying an “Islamic peacekeeping force” in post-war Afghanistan has been endorsed by the US but received coolly by potential contributing countries and rejected by the Afghan opposition.

The outline of the plan was presented last week to His Majesty King Abdullah and Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit by the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, is “the obvious candidate to lead an Islamic force”, Straw stated. Turkey was also expected to provide two battalions of troops, with Morocco, Bangladesh and Jordan contributing contingents.

Straw’s proposal reflects concern in the international community that Afghanistan could collapse into anarchy and chaos once the Taleban is driven from power. The opposition Northern Alliance, slated to figure prominently in a successor regime, carried out mass revenge killings and human rights abuses once the Russians departed.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell favours either a UN or a multinational force with strong Turkish participation. However, Ankara’s councils are divided. While the politicians approve the plan, serving generals are wary. The former army chief, Major General Cevik Bir, rejected the Straw proposal. He argues that service in Afghanistan could have negative political and social consequences for the Turkish armed forces. King Abdullah has, reportedly, expressed reservations.

The main worry is that Muslim peacekeepers could be converted to the ultra-conservative religious ideology prevalent in Afghanistan and fired by Islamist militancy; to put the transformation into visual form: peacekeepers would enter Afghanistan clean shaven and return home with beards. Muslim soldiers would be ideal subjects for converting clerics. Since soldiers already are trained in the use of weapons, only indoctrination would be needed.

Thousands of foreign Mujahedeen, “holy warriors” who drove the Soviet army from Afghanistan, departed to join Muslim forces fighting in Bosnia, Kosovo or Chechnya or to raise the banner of Islamist revolt in their own countries. A decade of violence in Algeria was sparked by repatriated “Afghans” while Egyptian “Afghans” carried out attacks against foreign tourists visiting Cairo and Luxor.

Since the Soviet era Mujahedeen departed, fresh generations of “Afghans” have been indoctrinated and schooled in the use of weapons in institutes and training bases in Afghanistan. Scores of able, educated youngsters have joined the officer corps while the less well endowed and uneducated youths have been drafted into the rank and file. The Egyptian militant, Mohammad Atta, accused of organising the Sept. 11 attack in the US, clearly graduated from the “Mujahedeen university” with honours. Some of the foot soldiers, apparently recruited to go to Chechnya, may have taken short weapons-training courses in Afghanistan.

Some Muslim societies are fertile ground for proselytising Islamists. Huge inequalities between rich and poor, the lack of good educational and health systems, high unemployment and corruption alienate the lower middle and working classes. These are precisely the social levels from which army conscripts are generally drawn. Converted peacekeepers would be the ideal vehicle for the export of the Afghan version of Islamist ideology, as well as a commitment to action.

Former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Ibrahimi, now the UN secretary general’s representative for Afghanistan, is not keen to deploy any “blue helmets”, Muslim or non-Muslim in the country. “I would like to know which countries are rushing forward to offer troops to mount an operation in Afghanistan,” he said in a recent press conference in New York. Ibrahimi favours an all-Afghan force. He is supported by France, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Ibrahimi understands very well the risks of returning “Afghans”. He joined the country’s government at the outset of the ongoing conflict with the Islamists.

Dr Muhammad Jalil Shams, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister who is now a spokesman for the exiled opposition, agrees. “No foreign force, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, will be accepted by the people of Afghanistan,” he told this correspondent. In his view, his country’s problems are the result of “foreign interference, beginning with Britain, then Russia and the US and now Pakistan. Afghans do not want to replace the Pakistanis with other foreigners”. he asserted.

However, Powell believes an all-Afghan force could be “tricky until you’ve established some form of government and some form of understanding among the various groupings as to how they’ll share power and authority”. He observed that unless Afghanistan’s fractious tribes and political factions agree it will be difficult to establish a police force or an army. He also fears that the UN bureaucracy could hinder the early formation of a peacekeeping force. Powell denied that the US had serious differences with Ibrahimi. After talks with US officials on the weekend, Ibrahimi stated: “It is too early to say what kind of formula is going to be used”. However, there is absolutely no doubt that the adoption of the “Islamic peacekeeper” formula could pose great dangers to the countries contributing, to the global Muslim community, the “Umma”, and to the international community as a whole. This proposal should be discarded.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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